MSHA to enforce Mine Act in Pacific after 50 years of inaction
Editor’s Note: This article is being published in three parts due to its length.
First of a three-part series
After nearly a half-century of inaction, the reach of U.S. mining law will finally be extended far westward beyond Hawaii beginning on April 1, 2017, when the Mine Safety and Health Administration says it will begin enforcing the Mine Act in several far-flung U.S. localities in the Pacific Ocean.
“It just dropped out of the sky on us,” MSHA assistant secretary Joe Main said when asked why the agency was just now getting around to enforcing the law in a number of Pacific islands that have been under its jurisdiction, yet have been left untouched since at least 1969. Those lands are the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.
In a telephone interview in September, Main said he could not explain why previous MSHA administrators had not enforced mine safety in these territories. But he indicated that the localities came to the agency’s attention in July 2014 due to a complaint concerning a potential highwall hazard at a mine in American Samoa. The complaint was never confirmed, but it did put the country on MSHA’s radar screen. A quick check of Section 3(c) of the Mine Act revealed Guam and the CNMI, formerly a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, should be included as well.
For their part, the islanders were blindsided by the development. “It was a bit of a surprise to the U.S. territories when we popped into their life, as you can imagine,” Main recalled.
The initial physical interaction between the feds and island operators, all metal/non-metal mines, came in May 2015. According to a CNMI news source, that’s when MSHA Western District manager Wyatt Andrews and his assistant, Paul Belanger, met with government officials and traveled around the archipelago to identify mines. The survey also encompassed Guam and American Samoa.
The CNMI consists of a crescent-shaped chain of 15 islands in the northwestern Pacific. The CNMI is bordered on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the west by the Philippine Sea. The capital is on Saipan, the largest of the islands. Guam is the southernmost island in the CNMI chain but is independently governed. American Samoa lies southeast of the CNMI in the South Pacific. Distances among the Pacific islands are immense. American Samoa is 3,600 miles from Guam and the CNMI. Honolulu to the American Samoa capital, Pago Pago, is 2,600 miles; Honolulu to Saipan, 3,700 miles. In contrast, New York to Los Angeles by air is 2,450 miles.
While little knowledge was needed to identify larger mines, island government officials were surprised to learn that MSHA classified some its smaller operations as mines, too. “They [the governments] didn’t even know these were mines,” said Main, referring to such operations as those supplying lava for building construction and producing sea shells for aggregate.
During his May 2015 visit, Andrews told authorities MSHA would not begin to enforce the law until 2020, according to the news source, the Saipan Tribune. However, Andrews was back in March 2016 with a more urgent message: enforcement would begin on Oct. 1, 2016. That date has since been set back to April 1, 2017, at least in part due to local political pressure for more time to come into compliance.
Training and compliance assistance visits
Seasoned U.S. operators might wonder why MSHA, after finally gearing up to oversee these mines, is taking so long to lower its enforcement boom. Main’s answer for the “slow walk,” as he described it, is because of “the primitive environment that exists in that region that was never regulated,” and thus the necessity for an extensive amount of hand-holding in the form of educational outreach and training assistance. “We’ve been doing that for quite some time,” Main said.
The agency put on six days of training over a two-week period last April for operations in Saipan and Guam under the auspices of MSHA’s Educational Field and Small Mine Services Group. The first three days focused on new miner training; the second three, on train-the-trainer classes, according to the Saipan newspaper. Operators in American Samoa apparently were trained a month earlier. Main said his agency also hosted a visit by U.S. territory governmental officials in September at the Mine Academy in Beaver, West Virginia, where they were briefed on training programs. They were also taken on a mine tour to “give them an idea of what regulated mining looks like,” the agency’s chief said.
Obviously unhappy over federal intervention, companies participating in the training groused about its effectiveness. As quoted anonymously by the Tribune, individuals complained that the training was “‘sadly condensed, bereft of useful content, and far inferior’” to other federal training initiatives. “‘It was clearly an ‘information dump’ on all quarry and mine operators in the CNMI, done more to regulate rather than help us understand and implement these complex and costly regulatory burdens,’” the newspaper reported participants as saying.
To be continued
James Sharpe (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
James Sharpe, a certified industrial hygienist, is the former vice president of Safety and Health Services for the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, a trade group based in the Washington, D.C. area that supports the U.S. aggregate mining sector.