Aggregate costs driven by federal out-f-control inspections

What would you call a federal agency that sends three different inspectors on three consecutive days that write three violations for the same alleged violation when each time the infraction was fixed only to find inspectors interpret safety laws differently?  “Out of control” is what Gary Weathers calls them.

Weathers has operated one of the aggregate pits on the hill above Eagle Point since 1986.  At least twice each year, inspectors come from the Salem office to inspect his operations.  Weathers employs between six and 12 persons, depending on the economy and the amount of building taking place at the time.  At first, he says, they came to correct violations, then when the economy slowed, they came to find and fine for paperwork violations.  Now, he says they come to find ways of fining companies to make sure they have continued funding for their offices.

Weathers is the first to admit that the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) is necessary to insure the well being of mine employees.  It was born out of the need for mine safety in the coal-producing areas of the country, but unfortunately encompasses pit operations such as his and other aggregate operations in the Rogue Valley.  He feels the pinch mostly when mine disasters happen in the East, accurately predicting when mandates come from Washington following such incidents.

It was unfortunate that pit operations had to be lumped together with mines, but such is the case.  While Weathers admits there are unscrupulous operators who could and should be fined for attempting to make shortcuts that are dangerous,  “Such people should not be in the business,” he says.  However, lumping those with legitimate operators who care about their loyal employees with rogue operators is the same as placing pit owners in with unscrupulous wildcat miners in the East.  With those folks, profit at all costs is the name of the game and is the very reason for  MSHA.

Weathers and a number of aggregate owners and operators in the State of Oregon have band together in an organization known as Oregon Independent Aggregate Association.  That group has been created to inform members about their legal rights when confronted with an inspector that has all the power of the federal government behind them and a virtually unlimited budget. 

OIAA is comprised of independent aggregate quarry owners and operators and other interested parties dedicated to promoting the aggregate industry by clarifying and simplifying regulatory restrictions, providing educational and training opportunities to assist with MSHA and state agency compliance, and furthering the ability of the aggregate industry to operate in a free enterprise environment.

Weathers and other owner/operators have been subjected to fines for such heinous crimes as having candy wrappers in trash cans, so petty is MSHA.  Banana peels in the trash, constitute a health hazard according to OIAA members who have been fined for such things, and an indication, according to Weathers, of how far MSHA has sunk in an effort to fund their own agency.

The last major mine accident was some years ago, when George Bush was in office.  At that time, the severity of fines were raised exponentially because large operators in the east were ignoring changing regulations.  Moving tons of coal and a few yards of aggregate are not the same however, and the effects of that raise were felt in the aggregate pit much more than they were in coal.  Weathers was once fined for a minor infraction, perhaps a $100 fine, and then cited for the same infraction more than 20 years later.  Even though the infraction was minor, once the records office got hold of it, he was labeled a “repeat offender” and fined $4300 for virtually no offense.

While a number of operators have “rolled over,” Weathers has bowed his back, challenging petty violations and taking them to federal court.  A number of other operators have taken the same tactic when they feel federal inspectors are out of line.  As a result, the courts have become so backlogged, it is doubtful that many of the cases will ever receive a hearing.

The result of all this browbeating is that the cost of aggregate has gone up to cover costs of petty fines and litigation.  Roads and streets, driveways; almost all building projects use aggregate.  What was once an attempt to promote safety in the workplace has deteriorated into another agency seeking only to fund itself.

It doesn’t appear that anything is destined to change soon.  Until federal regulators realize that most operators are legitimate business owners who care about the safety of employees, the harassments will continue–and so will the high cost of aggregates.   
By Ralph McKechnie
For the Independent

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