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PLAN TO CLOSE THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES WOULD UNDERMINE AGENCY’S VITAL MISSION

SHARE PLAN TO CLOSE THE U.S. BUREAU OF MINES WOULD UNDERMINE AGENCY’S VITAL MISSION

As part of its effort to balance the federal budget, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted June 27 to abolish the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM).

Few could argue with the need to get federal spending under control. And the USBM is a small agency with fewer than 1,900 employees and a proposed budget of $132 million for fiscal year 1996. So what is the problem?The problem is that in voting to do away with the Bureau of Mines, the Appropriations Committee is doing little to reduce the enormous federal deficit. In this case, the committee is not carving away at a bloated bureaucracy, such as those in the departments of Defense, Energy and Veterans Affairs. Rather, in this instance, the committee is proposing a summary execution of a successful, well-run organization that has done everything asked of it.

The USBM, a part of the Department of the Interior, is the federal agency with primary responsibility for helping the nation meet its mineral needs with minimal cost to the environment, worker health and safety, and the economy.

To date, the bureau's research has won 35 "R&D 100" awards, given annually by Research & Development Magazine as one of the year's 100 most technologically significant new products. The high quality of the bureau's financial management was cited by the Interior Department in its 1993 and 1994 reviews of best financial practices.

Since 1993, the USBM has conducted its own program review, a comprehensive internal examination of its operations in keeping with the administration's National Performance Review (NPR), aimed at making government work better and cost less.

As a result, the USBM is one of only a few federal agencies to have made adjustments in its operations to maintain the capabilities essential to good government. The bureau is reorganizing and streamlining its operations around its core research functions - enhancing the health and safety of workers, improving the technologies to restore contaminated lands, preventing pollution, conserving resources, and gathering information on society's use of minerals. Programs of a lesser priority are being terminated or consolidated.

The bureau is making the largest percentage reductions in administrative streamlining of any agency in the Department of the Interior, saving more than $10 million over a three-year period.

In addition, the USBM has made the largest percentage personnel reductions of any Interior bureau. Bureau staff nationwide will be reduced by more than 25 percent, from 2,368 full-time employees in fiscal year 1993, the base year, to 1,700 by the beginning of FY 1997.

By then, the bureau will have met the NPR-planned goals for FY 1999. Headquarters staff will be reduced by 50 percent, and management layers will be reduced both in the field and headquarters.

Thus, it can be seen that the bureau already has trimmed whatever fat that existed within its operations and refocused its efforts upon its core mission. And that mission very much remains relevant to the nation's needs.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines is the primary federal agency that conducts research and analyzes data to help solve national problems related to mineral resources. Much of the bureau's work deals with complex problems that are so large in scope that they are beyond the resources of individual companies:

- Mining remains one of the nation's most dangerous occupations. In 1993, one in eight underground coal miners was injured on the job, almost twice the average in American industry.

- Respiratory illness - a key focus of bureau research - is the No. 1 concern of all industrial workers. Beyond the human suffering caused by res-pir-atory illness, the cost to the nation as a whole runs into billions of dollars for health care and compensation costs.

- The potential federal liability for hundreds of thousands of inactive or abandoned mines on public lands is enormous. More than 5,000 miles of U.S. rivers and streams are contaminated by acid mine drainage.

- Between $500 million and $600 billion in raw and semi-manufactured non-fuel mineral products flow through global export markets annually. Federal agencies, state and local governments, financial institutions, and private businesses all need accurate and up-to-date information on this traffic.

The USBM is the only entity with the research and analytic capabilities to address the full range of mineral-related problems. Private companies have neither the resources nor the economic incentives.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines doesn't regulate. It doesn't enforce. In fact, it doesn't take any actions against people or businesses. Thus, the bureau's research findings and data analyses can be trusted to be fair and objective. No other mineral-related organization, government or private, can make this statement.

This factor will become an increasingly important federal asset in the years ahead as the nation intensifies its struggles to cope with the massive problems related to the growing, worldwide demand for mineral resources. To throw such an asset away solely for the sake of budget cutting would be penny wise and pound foolish in the extreme.

As key environmental and economic advisers to President Clinton recognized, "The USBM has useful capabilities and delivers solutions to national problems . . ." While interest in reducing the USBM's budget is understandable, the advisers note that the bureau's budget is only about 2 percent of the total for the Department of the Interior as a whole.

Not even the legislative body's own Congressional Budget Office (CBO) favors doing away with the USBM. In its most recent report to Congress on reducing the federal deficit, the CBO suggests reducing "USBM funding for near-term development for specific products and technologies while preserving the agency's programs for information dissemination and basic research."

Under this scenario, USBM funding for areas other than information would be reduced gradually to 25 percent of its 1995 level by the year 2000. In total, the CBO estimates that this would save $237 million in outlays over the five year period.

The reductions would start with an $18 million cut from the bureau's FY 1995 enacted budget of $152.4 million. This is close to the president's recommendation of $132.5 million for the bureau in FY 1996, and something close to that figure would he appropriate for the Congress to approve.

It is the position of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers that the closing of the U.S. Bureau of Mines would not be in the best interests of the nation.