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Big Brother, and Everyone Else, is Watching You

MSHAApril 12, 2011 – This is going to be sort of like operating in a fish bowl. MSHA now offers an online service that enables mine operators, miners and others to monitor a mining operation to determine if it could be subject to a potential pattern of violations (POV). MSHA developed the monitoring tool based on feedback from the mining industry and others, as well as recommendations from a POV auditreport issued last September by the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General. “We are making the process more transparent,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “We have worked hard to improve the pattern of violations process, and I am confident we have developed a tool to better serve the mining community. This self-monitoringtool will be an extremely effective way for mine operators to continuously track their compliance history and make the changes necessary to ultimately keep miners safe and healthy.” The newly developed POV monitoring tool, available here, permits mine operators, miners, the media and the public to determine, based on the most recent data available, how a specific mine matches up with the criteria for a potential pattern of violations. The enforcement data, upon which the pattern of violations criteria are based, will be refreshed monthly. My biggest concern is that the media and NIMBY Groups with an ax to grind will misrepresent some of the data they see for their own purposes. Does this concern you as well?

Bridges to Nowhere

TFAApril 6, 2011 – Much was made about Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" in the contentious aftermath of the passage of SAFETEA-LU in 2005. But the real bridge to nowhere might be the one that's going to fall down in your state. One in nine of the bridges and overpasses that American drivers cross each day is rated in poor enough condition that they could become dangerous or be closed without near-term repair, according to a report released by Transportation for America. Nearly 70,000 bridges nationwide are rated “structurally deficient” and are in need of substantial repair or replacement, according to federal data. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the backlog of potentially dangerous bridges would cost $70.9 billion to eliminate, while the federal outlay for bridges amounts to slightly more than $5 billion per year. The report, The Fix We’re In For: The State of the Nation’s Bridges, ranks states in terms of the overall condition of the state’s bridges, with one being the worst, 51 being the best. Twenty-three states across the country have a higher percentage of deficient bridges than the national average of 11.5 percent. The five states with the worst bridge conditions (more than 20 percent structurally deficient) are Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Iowa, Rhode Island, and South Dakota.

The Main Man Speaks Up

Joseph-MainApril 1, 2011 – With the anniversary of the Big Branch mining disaster fast approaching, MSHA chief Joseph Main told senators during a congressional hearing that Congress should approve new, tighter regulatory powers for the agency. “Legislation is still needed to fully protect our nation’s miners,” Main told the committee. “This committee has never subscribed to the myth that mining fatalities are an inevitable aspect of the business. I am asking you to again stand up for miners and pass new and needed mine safety legislation.” Specifically, Main said his agency needs improvements to the “Pattern of Violations” program for problematic mines; authority for the Labor Department to act more quickly to shut down dangerous mines through injunctions; updated and strengthened criminal penalties under the federal mine act; and stronger protection for whistleblowers. My guess is, despite Main's best intentions, his request will fall on deaf ears. MSHA's detractors note that it is not sufficiently using the regulatory powers it has, and wasting its resources at mines where the "safety violations" consist of writing citations for "unflushed toilets and trash can lids that are ajar."

Making Noise in Illinois

illinois-road-mapMarch 30, 2011 – Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois isn’t making many friends in the business community these days. Companies in that state now have to pay a 7 percent corporate tax rate for the next four years, up from the previous 4.8 percent. And Illinois businesses are already subject to a 2.5 percent surcharge. Caterpillar Chief Executive Officer Doug Oberhelman reportedly told Quinn in a March 21 letter that at least four other states had approached the company about relocating since the tax passed. Would Caterpillar really consider moving? Don’t rule it out. After all, they have switched states before, starting out in California before ending up in Illinois. The Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers is also up in arms over the Governor’s proposed FY 2012 transportation budget. An extremely troubling part of thisproposal is the planned diversion of $85.5 million from the Road Fund to pay operating subsidies for transit and rail (which have traditionally and appropriately been paid from General Revenue Funds). Although the impact ofthis new diversion may appear small when compared to Illinois’ multi-billion-dollar budget problems, the association’s position on this issue is clear: this new Road Fund diversion would have an extremely negative impact on the state’s multi-year road program. Stay tuned for more on the budget battles unfolding in Illinois.

LaHood Attends the Show

raylahoodMarch 25, 2011 – Through Thursday, more than 117,000 people have attended ConExpo-Con/Agg, and the mood here at the show, where I have been blogging live all week, has been overwhelmingly positive. Of special note was U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's visit to the show, and his assessment that a new highway transportation bill would be pushed through Congress before the August recess, He said that everyone in government is aware of the importance of getting a bill passed to trigger infrastructure investment and boost the nation’s economic recovery for the long term. “A transportation bill is a jobs bill. It puts people to work,” the Secretary said. “We want a six-year bill passed this year. We hope we can get it done by August. That’s our goal.”