The only federal laboratory devoted to mining safety in the West, Spokane’s Mine Research Laboratory, is regaining 12 jobs stripped away in recent years.
Two of the jobs have already been filled, and the rest are likely to be filled by fall, said Diane Porter, deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the agency that took over former operations of Spokane’s Bureau of Mines office in 1996.
In 2002 the Spokane NIOSH office had more than 90 workers. Four years ago it was down to 50; today’s it’s at roughly 35 jobs, Porter said.
The job erosion occurred as federal managers shifted jobs and money to East Coast centers, including the main NIOSH mine safety center in Pittsburgh.
NIOSH didn’t need to seek additional money to budget the new jobs, Porter said. The new jobs will be funded from already-budgeted money available because of unfilled positions, she said.
NIOSH is a federal agency that’s been folded into the Centers for Disease Control, based in Atlanta.
Reeling in some of those high-paying jobs is a critical victory, said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association. The Spokane lab is the only facility focused on rock mining safety and operations, she said. Unlike the coal mining that dominates the eastern half of the country, western mining is heavily focused on hard rock mining, she said.
“We lobbied this issue very significantly for two years,” Skaer said. The mining association started raising concerns after NIOSH workers in Spokane began leaving or were transferred.
“But the main credit for getting jobs back belongs to our congressional delegation, specifically Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers,” Skaer added.
It’s taken almost two years for the CDC to respond, Skaer said, because it’s a large bureaucracy that doesn’t respond quickly to efforts from a distant corner of the country.
The jobs include four mining engineers, two medical officers and two scientists. The engineers are trained in mine operations and work with researchers to examine the cause of accidents.
Nearly all the jobs start at more than $55,000 and depending on background and classification pay in excess of $78,000 per year.
Skaer said the Spokane research center remains one of the key sources of mine safety improvements.
Mine safety regionally has picked up in part due to a series of accidents and deaths at Hecla Mining Co.’s Lucky Friday mine, in Mullan, Idaho.
NIOSH’s Porter added that Hecla is eager to be involved in ongoing safety research conducted out of the Spokane office.
“The Lucky Friday people at Hecla have been very helpful, providing us opportunities to resume research in North Idaho,” she said.