MAC: Mines and Communities

US Updates: January 2006

Published by MAC on 2006-01-15

US Updates: January 2006

23rd January 2006


The US Toxic Release Investory (TRI) has long been a prime tool used by communities, and campaigners, to spotlight the impacts which specific plants have on domestic air, water and soil quality. Consistently, mining and minerals processing companies have featured among the worst offenders.

Now, the Bush regime is about to drastically limit the TRI. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will report every two years, instead of annually. But worse - it will raise the emissions threshold tenfold for certain chemicals - notably mercury from coal-fired power plants.

Pennsylvania Governor Opposes Curb on Access to Toxic Release Data

by HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania

18th January 2006

Pennsylvania is opposing proposed federal regulations that would limit public access to information about the chemicals companies legally release into the air, Governor Edward Rendell said Friday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to raise the threshold for reporting the release of certain chemicals in the Toxic Release Inventory from 500 pounds to 5,000 pounds, and change the reporting requirements to every other year instead of yearly, weakening a tool that empowers residents to fully assess the health of their communities.

"The federal Toxic Release Inventory has been tremendously successful at using the influence of public information to encourage facilities to reduce their emissions," said Governor Rendell, a Democrat.

"The inventory puts information about chemical releases in a community at the fingertips of residents and holds companies accountable to their neighbours. Rolling back reporting requirements and exempting more chemicals from the requirements is a mistake."

The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), created by Congress in 1986, is available on the EPA's website. With a few keystrokes, residents are able to gather information about the character of certain chemicals and dispersion of toxic substances from specific manufacturing plants both nationally and locally.

Companies currently report releases by July 1 each year, although there is a delay of about 18 months between the end of a reporting year and public availability of the data.

For several years, the EPA has solicited ideas from state and local air agencies on means to reduce that delay. But now the federal agency is proposing reporting biennially instead of annually, not only adding to delays but cutting in half the amount of new information available to the public each year.

EPA recently enhanced its online database, giving stakeholders more direct access to information. EPA now is attempting to justify curtailment of TRI by stating, "citizens will benefit from the redirection of federal and state taxpayer dollars to improve the quality, clarity usefulness and accessibility of TRI information products and services."

In reality, Rendell said, the initiative will reduce the amount of important information available and double the amount of time between reports by reducing reporting frequency to every other year.

"As we move forward to address the serious health threat that mercury poses, it is critical that this information remain available," said state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty. "The proposed rule would clearly be a step in the wrong direction."

Raising the threshold for reporting the release of certain chemicals would result in a loss of information, says McGinty. Only five of Pennsylvania's coal-fired power plants would need to report their mercury and mercury compound emissions under the proposed changes. Thirty-four currently report those emissions.

For the 2003 calendar year, the owners and operators of 109 facilities located in Pennsylvania reported TRI data on mercury and mercury compounds. If the final rule raises the eligibility threshold, TRI reporting may only apply to 10 of those facilities.

For more information about the Toxic Release Inventory, log on to:

"Every law has been written by the blood of miners!" That's the opinion of the main US mineworkers' union as it calls for tougher fines against companies and safer conditions for workers

Mining agency: Increase top fine

by Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

19th January 2006

Labor leaders and regulators are pushing for the nation's first mine-safety reforms in nearly 30 years and hope to nearly quadruple the maximum fine for serious violations in the wake of this month's mine disaster in West Virginia, miners and safety experts said Wednesday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration wants the authority to impose $220,000 fines, up from the present maximum of $60,000. MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said the larger fines would "raise the ante for mine operators to abide by the law."

The administration has sought the higher fines in the past three years but got little support in Congress. Rep. Don Sherwood, a Republican from a coal-mining region in Pennsylvania, told Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in March that high fines "would put most of my people out of business."

The death of 12 miners at the Sago Mine this month will build support for the $220,000 fines, said Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety adviser in the Clinton administration. Congress will hold its first hearing Monday on mining safety.

Nine senators - six Democrats and three Republicans from coal-producing states - have called for a series of hearings on mine training, safety, and technology. The senators said in a Jan. 10 letter requesting the hearings that they want to enact "strong, bipartisan mine-safety legislation" this year. "The miners who died at Sago deserve no less."

Oppegard said changing the law to allow higher fines would appeal to lawmakers looking to strengthen mine safety without enacting new standards.

More hearings are set for Jan. 31 and in March.

The United Mine Workers will testify on Monday and call for safety improvements to help trapped miners, said Dennis O'Dell, the union's head of safety and health. The union wants the government to require:

. Rugged communications equipment that can withstand an explosion.
. Rescue teams stationed at every mine.
. Breathing devices that will give miners hours of extra oxygen.

Sago miners lost all contact with the surface after an unexplained explosion Jan. 2. Wireless radios might have helped save some miners, said Ben Hatfield, CEO of Sago owner International Coal Group. He said the coal industry has been slow to adopt the technology.

Some mines provide extra breathing equipment to supplement portable air supplies that miners carry. Those devices generate oxygen for one hour - an insufficient duration, O'Dell said.

"If it takes me eight hours to get out of a mine, I should have eight hours of oxygen," O'Dell said.

Tim Biddle, a lawyer who represents mining companies, said that adding breathing equipment is "reasonable." But he said "there are some special problems with wireless communications underground."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a long time mine-safety advocate, echoed the union's concerns and said he supports higher fines. He said regulators should focus on increasing penalties "before there is a tragic accident."

The original mine-safety law was enacted in 1969 after 78 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion. The last major changes occurred in 1977, several years after a fire killed 91 miners in Idaho.

"Every law," O'Dell said, "has been written by the blood of miners."

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