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Western lawmakers protest cuts at Spokane federal laboratory devoted to mine safety

Lawmakers from northwestern states are protesting staff cuts at the only federal laboratory devoted to improving mining safety in the West.

Members of Congress from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska have sent a letter criticizing cuts that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has made in recent years at its Spokane Research Lab. They contend the safety of western miners is being sacrificed to fund additional safety research on coal mining in the eastern U.S.

“Western United States mining health and safety issues, particularly those of the metal and non-metal sector, cannot be — and will not be — diminished in favor of Eastern United States coal mining health and safety issues,” the letter said.

The letter comes two months after a miner died in a roof cave-in at the Lucky Friday Mine, near Mullan, Idaho, which is located about 100 miles east of Spokane.

The nation’s only other lab that studies mine safety is in Pittsburgh, and focuses on coal mines in the eastern U.S.

That lab has been gaining staff in recent years after fatal accidents in coal mines focused attention on safety deficiencies, said Fred Blosser, a NIOSH spokesman in Washington, D.C. The Sago mine explosion in West Virginia in 2006 killed 12. Last year, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29.

The Spokane lab has seen a reduction in its staff, but there are no plans to close the western facility, Blosser said.

“We are looking at ways to diversify our research there,” Blosser said.

One problem is that Spokane is relatively remote, making it difficult to recruit staff there, Blosser said.

“It’s off the beaten path,” Blosser said.

The Spokane lab had 95 employees in 2002, but that is down to about 50 employees now, the Northwest Mining Association, an industry trade group, said.

Western lawmakers are worried that continuous cuts in the Spokane work force will eventually lead to closure.

The Spokane Research Lab has been around for decades, and has done important research in reducing injuries from cave-ins, rock bursts and other dangers of the deep underground mines of the West. It was almost closed in 1996, when the former U.S. Bureau of Mines was dissolved, but the facility was saved by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Now Murray’s office has spearheaded the letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that was also signed by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; James Risch, R-Idaho; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.; Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; and Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

The letter asks that the Spokane Research Lab be returned to its 2002 funding level so it can work at full capacity.

The letter noted that the director, deputy director and all branch chief positions at the Spokane lab have been eliminated, and supervisors in Pittsburgh manage researchers in Spokane.

The Spokane lab has some 30 unfilled openings and lots of unused research space, said Laura Skaer, director of the Northwest Mining Association. Key researchers are also being transferred to Pittsburgh, she said.

“The fear is if we lose the Spokane lab than pretty soon there will be no emphasis on safety issues unique to hard-rock mining,” Skaer said.

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