Nye, Montana – The violation notices keep coming in: broken safety equipment, underground roof collapses, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide — each a hint of the federal enforcement blitz set off more than a year ago by a series of deadly mining accidents across the nation.
Here in Montana, the penalties affect more than mine operators facing fines or shutdowns. The stepped-up oversight is also helping define one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, with Representative Denny Rehberg, a six-term Republican, trying to oust Senator Jon Tester, a first-term Democrat.
Mr. Tester and other Montana politicians often support legislation that would benefit the coal and minerals mining industry, a big employer here, or oppose federal mandates that mine owners find objectionable. But it is Mr. Rehberg who has been the most ardent advocate, presenting a case study in how a lawmaker can help build his national profile — and campaign war chest — by championing an industry with deep pockets and political clout.
He has repeatedly criticized federal mine safety officials over the past year, charging that many inspection complaints are job killers or ridiculing others as trivial. In justifying their crackdown, though, federal officials point to the October death of a worker here in Nye at the Stillwater Mine, which had accumulated a string of citations this year.
He has used his influence to push Washington to approve deals sought by mining companies, including land swaps the government questions as disadvantageous to taxpayers, or opening up copper mining in northwestern Montana, which environmentalists argue should be left pristine.
He has tried to block initiatives by the Obama administration, with his most recent victory earlier this month when Congress at least temporarily prohibited the Department of Labor from enforcing a new rule intended to combat black lung disease, blamed for 10,000 miners’ deaths in the past decade. And he is also trying to block proposed rules intended to help pay for the cleanup of toxic waste at abandoned mine sites or to prevent strip mines from contaminating streams.
The congressman dismisses the regulatory proposals as excessive. “They put impediments in the way of reasonable development,” he said in an interview. “It is just a fundamental philosophical difference.”
The industry has shown its gratitude for his vigilance. “He has been incredibly valuable to us,” said Bud Clinch, executive director of the Montana Coal Council.
Just in the past two years, mining industry executives and companies including big players like Murray Energy, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy have donated nearly $100,000 to Mr. Rehberg’s Senate campaign, making him one of the top recipients of mining money in Congress and their favorite in the contest with Mr. Tester.
But advocates for miner health and safety see his efforts differently.
“He is more a spokesman for the industry than a lawmaker,” said Robert Guilfoyle, a retired Montana miner who is now an official with the United Mine Workers union. “He is out here trying to cut us in the neck.”
Mining has been a part of Montana’s heritage since its founding, with cities like Helena made famous for its Last Chance Gulch, where gold was discovered in 1864, or Butte, nicknamed the Richest Hill on Earth because of its vast copper reserves.
But it is also home to Glacier National Park and other wildlife refuges, and its well-organized community of environmental activists challenge almost every application for a new or expanded mine. That creates chronic tensions between environmentalists and mining executives, who note that Montana has more recoverable coal reserves than any other state but produces far less each year than West Virginia, Kentucky or neighboring Wyoming.
“There is a reason they are called the Treasure State — they are incredibly rich in coal and minerals,” said Katie Sweeney, the National Mining Association’s general counsel, of Montana. “But you can’t really call it the Treasure State today, because you can’t get it out of the ground. It is frustrating.”
Mr. Rehberg (pronounced REE-burg) has never been shy about his view that the state can benefit by putting more of its open land to productive use. He has pushed for more access to federal lands to drill for oil and natural gas and to harvest timber. He has also worked to repeal rules that might limit access; he and others in the Montana delegation successfully pushed the Obama administration to remove gray wolves in the state from an endangered species list. (The walls of his House office in Washington are filled with stuffed game, including a Canadian wolf, and the huge head of an American bison.)
Practicing what he preaches about utilizing land, he and his wife have set off about 800 acres of their expansive ranch near Billings, which had been in his family four generations, for a housing development.
The congressman has a tangential personal tie to the mining industry. His son, A. J., is an executive at a startup business called Mongolia Forward, which is trying to negotiate with the Asian nation to tap its uranium reserves. If the company succeeds in the deal and seeks to import the minerals to the United States, it is likely to partner with one of the major mining businesses that donate to the lawmaker.
The fight between Mr. Rehberg and the federal government has at times been heated. After the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, which left 29 workers dead, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration sent waves of inspectors to work sites nationwide.
Among those targeted was Signal Peak, a coal mine near Billings that had been repeatedly fined for violations including inadequate supports on an underground roof. In November 2010, as the mine safety agency prepared to issue one of its most serious warnings — a “potential pattern of violation notice” — Mr. Rehberg wrote to Joseph A. Main, the assistant secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health.
While not addressing what the agency considered serious safety threats, Mr. Rehberg accused the federal inspectors of improperly shifting their agenda from “an oversight role to that of a politically driven environmental regulator” and using their powers to harass the industry.
To make his point, he cited a series of what he called frivolous citations, mocking the agency’s efforts as silly.
“A 4 x 8-foot room near an entryway contained a 100-watt light bulb that was burnt out,” Mr. Rehberg wrote, citing violations issued at another Montana mine. “Toe spacing between ladder rungs was 2 ¾ inches instead of 3 inches.”
He followed up that complaint with a verbal lashing of Mr. Main, at a House budget hearing in May, accusing the agency of not differentiating between serious hazards and meaningless issues.
“I don’t want to ever minimize the danger of working in a mine,” Mr. Rehberg said, before reading off another citation he found foolish: “that all miners be removed from the vicinity when the coyotes are present.”
Workers and managers at one mine — Genesis in Troy, which produces silver and copper — complained to Mr. Rehberg last year that they believed federal regulators were overreacting to the West Virginia accident. Since then, the safety record at that mine has improved.
But the federal records show continued problems at some of the state’s biggest mines, including Stillwater, where a 42-year-old miner, Dale Alan Madson, was killed after his loader ran into a steel bar protruding from a mine wall, and at Signal Peak, which has been repeatedly shut down in the last six months because of a series of underground roof failures and dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the underground air.
Mr. Rehberg’s advocacy has divided miners in his state. Travis Harr, 32, a Stillwater miner, said that while he had confidence in the management at Stillwater, Mr. Rehberg should not interfere with the federal inspectors. “Their No. 1 thing is our safety,” he said. “Just knowing they are there, that makes our company work even harder to be safe.”
But his brother, Jason Updegraff, 37, a miner at Signal Peak, said Mr. Rehberg was helping protect the industry jobs — some of the highest paying in the state — that are threatened by federal intervention.
“Anytime you punch a hole in the ground, there is going to be fallout,” he said. “But where would we be, if we did not do this work? We would still be riding horses, and I prefer my car.”
Mr. Rehberg has hardly been discouraged by criticism. As chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees mine safety, he pushed through a provision for 2012 federal budget that blocks the enforcement of a new regulation that would have cut in half the amount of ambient coal dust permitted in mines. Inhalation of the tiny coal particles is blamed for pneumoconiosis, or black lung, a preventable disease that has taken thousands of lives and cost the federal government an estimated $44 billion in federal disability payments since the 1970s.
Mr. Rehberg acted after the National Mining Association and other industry groups complained that the new rule was unnecessary and “contrary to the latest and best scientific evidence.”
He similarly moved to stop an Environmental Protection Agency rule intended to ensure that money is available to clean up abandoned mines; industry officials had argued that state governments have an adequate cleanup program. He also joined a fight to prevent the E.P.A. from declaring coal ash a hazardous waste.
Mr. Rehberg’s support for the industry-backed measures has provoked environmentalists to argue, as a headline on a recent letter to a local newspaper stated, that he is a “friend of mines, foe of taxpayers.”
Steve Charter, a Billings-area rancher, said Montana residents knew all too well what would happen if mining companies were permitted to extract coal and metals without proper oversight, pointing to the history of fatal mining accidents and the hundreds of abandoned mine sites that are contaminating area groundwaters.
“When it comes to Denny Rehberg, the mining companies always seem to win,” he said.
Industry advocates, like Debbie Shea, executive director of the Montana Mining Association, countered that state and federal officials had learned how to manage mining without causing environmental damage and praised Mr. Rehberg as standing up to environmental advocates.
“There really is no working with them,” she said. Mr. Rehberg, she added, is simply “protecting Montana jobs.”