Sixteen months into the Biden presidency, with Republicans still effectively controlling a federal agency that oversees mine security, frustrated miners advocates say the Trump candidate will continue to deliver favorable judgments to mine operators.
Many people outside the industry will not be familiar with it Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency that reviews legal disputes arising out of citations and fines against mining companies. But the commission plays a key role in ensuring that health and safety legislation is properly implemented and enforced by federal inspectors.
When the Mines Safety and Health Administration issues fines against a mine operator, the operator can appeal them to the commission. In general, a commission more aligned with operators than safety hawkers would make it harder for inspectors to aggressively enforce the law.
The commission is believed to have five existing members who act on staggered terms as a panel and decide cases. By convention, the President’s party gets three members and the other party gets two. But right now, the agency only has three Senate-confirmed commissioners with a 2-1 GOP majority. Two Republican members, William Althen and Marko Rajkovic, are longtime advocates for mining companies.
The lone Democrat is Art Treynor, formerly a union attorney with the United Mine Workers of America. President Joe Biden appointed Treynor to chair the commission, but Treynor may still be overtaken by his two GOP counterparts on controversial matters that set precedent. Such decisions may determine when a mine operator may Penalty for security breachor when there is a miner protected under the law for them security activation,
“It is not right for a Democratic president and a Republican to constitute the majority of the commission. For all the miners in America, these are extremely important positions.”
– Tony Opgaard, my security lawyer
The White House has put forward two more candidates who, if confirmed, will fill all of the commission’s seats and form the expected 3-2 Democratic majority under a Democratic presidency. Those nominees have cleared the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but still haven’t received a vote on the Senate floor.
Elections are supposed to set the direction of federal policy, but lesser-known agencies such as the Mines Commission often wind up without a rudder for long periods, said Max Steer, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a Nonprofit that tracks presidential candidates. Steer said the Biden White House, like recent administrations, has been slow to fill many roles (though not as slow as former President Donald Trump). He said that most of the problem is in the Senate.
“It’s a classic little pipe with a lot of jam going through,” he said. “It’s agencies that don’t have an overall political vibe that get out of the way in the end.”
Tony Opegard, a lawyer representing the miners in security matters, said he has long found the commission to be very friendly to operators. He was hoping the Democratic election victory in 2020 would change its color and lead to decisions that would strengthen the law in favor of the miners. He said that the commission shapes safety not only in coal mines but also in metal and non-metal mines across the country.
“It is not right for a Democratic president and a Republican to constitute the majority of the commission,” said Opegard, many of whose clients are security whistleblowers. “For all miners in America, these are extremely important positions, as they interpret the law. [Mine Safety and Health Act] and all the intricacies of that law.”
Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Help committee, said she was pushing for a floor vote for commissioners to be held.
The aide said in an email, “Senator Murray is working hard to confirm Mary Lou Jordan and TJ Baker — two highly qualified nominees committed to protecting mine workers — and believe that more There is no reason to delay.”
But even if the commission winds up with a Democratic majority, it may not last long.
All three current commissioners were appointed by previous administrations and confirmed as a group by the then-GOP-controlled Senate in 2019. But the Trump administration put Treynor, the only Democrat, in the commission seat that was due to expire earlier, a move that could tighten the GOP’s grip on the commission. Treynor’s seat opens this August, while Elthen and Rajkovic Remain in your seats till August 2024,
This means that even if Democrats approve two candidates awaiting a Senate vote, they need to immediately reaffirm Treynor or install a new nominee in his place to avoid a 2-2 commission. Which could lead to a deadlock on matters by the end of the summer.
With the Commission’s control essentially grabbing hold, the agency has turned into a political football.
As E&E News recently informed ofAs chairman of the commission, the Republican, along with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, has accused him of “political interference” and “unfair management practices.” Treynor told HuffPost the allegations are false. But even if unfounded, they could hurt Treynor’s chances for reappointment, forcing Democrats to get another candidate through the process of establishing a majority on the commission.
Treynor said the Trump administration’s maneuvering with commission seats has left Democrats with three consecutive seats to fill from their party, making a bipartisan agreement with Republicans less likely.
“Since it’s all Democrats, they’ve removed the mud,” he said.
According to E&E, Traynor recently sent a letter to the HELP committee alleging “seriously unethical and criminal misconduct” by staff of the commission under the supervision of Althen and Rajkovich, including through the COVID-19 relief program. Fraudulent work profits being issued from Althen and Rajkovic have denied the allegations.
Treynor said his biggest concern is how security legislation is being shaped. He said the commission would tilt the law in favor of mine operators as long as Republicans outnumber Democrats.
“In his short time in the majority, he has done a lot of damage to legal protections for miners for decades,” he said.
Elthen said he was outraged by this.
“The thing about us reducing miner security is not true,” he said. “I completely reject the notion that operator lawyers are bad guys who don’t care about workers. I’ve been at deadly sites.”
Rajkovic declined a request for an interview, but said in an email that the idea that Republican commissioners would undermine security is “false.”
“All my life in the mining sector, I have always put safety first,” he said. “As a commissioner, my role (and the role of all commissioners) is to take an impartial view and decide matters fairly and on the basis of law.”
Perhaps the most controversial case before the commission pertains to a subsidiary of coal giant Peabody Energy. The majority can set a precedent that makes it easier for mine operators to escape”important and sufficient“Safety breaches, saving thousands of dollars in potential fines and avoiding mine closures. The majority of conditions would make it very difficult to enforce a requirement that operators have underground shelters for miners in emergency situations,” Treynor says.
“In his short time in the majority, he has done a lot of damage to legal protections for miners for decades.”
– FMSHRC Chair Art Trainor
The commission has not yet issued its decision. one in public hearing Last year, Treynor argued that his allies were going out of their way to reverse an earlier decision for the benefit of the industry. The hearing intensified, with Treynor calling Rajkovic dishonest, and Treynor and Elthen eventually yelling at each other. Althain accused Treynor of slowing down the matter so that they could not issue a decision, adding that Treynor was “looking for two more commissioners.”
This drop in midterm elections could further complicate efforts to reshape the commission, depending on how long seats remain vacant. If Republicans take control of the Senate next year, they could prevent Biden from filling any open positions, barring a Democratic majority.
Similar problems hang over another worker safety agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which defers citations issued by OSHA inspectors. That agency is a three-member body, but it currently has only two Senate-confirmed commissioners, one Democrat and one Republican.
the White House nomination withdrawn A possible third commissioner, Democrat Susan Harthill, last month without explanation. Like the Mine Safety Review Commission, it is unclear when all of the agency’s seats will be filled and controlled by a Democratic majority.
Debbie Berkowitz, workplace safety expert and former OSHA official, said a standoff commission would be unable to decide some cases where commissioners do not agree. And under the law, she said, employers will not have to address perceived threats in their OSHA citations until appeals are sitting with the commission.
“It’s good for Republicans and their big business supporters that these agencies either don’t work or they remain in the hands of Republicans,” she said. “Who are the victims of my workers and other workers in hazardous industries.”