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Exiting MSHA chief hopes mine safety improvement momentum continues

Joseph Main will leave the top post at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

Main, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, led the agency when the Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded in 2010. Since that disaster, which killed 29 coal miners in one of the worst mining tragedies in recent history, the industry has continually improved on several key metrics.

Fatalities from black lung have consistently fallen, even ahead of new black lung rules designed to further reduce those figures. The rates of mining fatalities and injuries were lower in 2015 than they have been since the agency was started in 1977. Mines identified for enhanced enforcement under the pattern of violations program have fallen from 51 mines in 2010 to zero in 2016.

The agency is also writing fewer significant and substantial violations. The total dollar amount assessed and the number of citations and orders have declined each year since 2010.

Main said that it has taken the entire mining community to get to the level of safety where mining is at now. However, nine coal miners have died on the job in 2016. Main sees plenty of room for improvement and dreams of years free of mining fatalities, a goal he believes is achievable.

Main said mining companies — specifically applauding Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Alliance Resource Partners LP, Arch Coal Inc. and CONSOL Energy Inc. — that rose to the challenge of improving safety have driven a lot of the work. One of his strategies, he said, has been intentionally reaching out to companies with good safety programs and working to "drag the rest of the industry up to that."

"There's a number of mines, every day, that believe it or not we go inspect and we don't cite any violations," Main said on a call with reporters. "They have good health and safety programs and training programs. If you look at, from a business perspective, there's a lot more buying in not only because of the improvements because they have a more equal place in the playing field of the mining industry. Those who undercut the market, took shortcuts that may have captured more of the market, that was not a good thing for them. I think there's a lot of industry folks that have more so understood how a better industry benefits all."

Main said at the end of the day that he hopes the improved culture and drive toward boosting safety will drive more progress even if regulations change. Pointing to improved data on black lung incidences, Main said he thinks it may be difficult to roll back many of the protections his office put in place.

"Folks that start looking at things like that a little bit differently and thinking about making change that would take those protections away would have to think about things like looking those families in the eye, that go to work in these mines and explain to them how they justify that with all the deaths that have occurred," Main said.