American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

A Posthumous Commentary on the U.S. Bureau of Mines

The following "Government Affairs Report" column by GAP Senior Advisor John Dragonetti is reprinted from the February 1997 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. It is reprinted with permission.

It has been over a year since the 104th session of the U.S. Congress, in its wisdom, eliminated funding for the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM). The USBM closure on March 30, 1996 was a consequence of the budget cutting frenzy initiated by the House Republicans as part of their "Contract with America." Although statutory authority still exists for the agency, the lack of an appropriation essentially abolished the Bureau. It is an unfortunate end for an agency with a fine record of serving the nation since 1910. Prior to that time, many of its operations were conducted under the aegis of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and just as some Bureau activities predate the agency's creation, several of its functions were recognized as significant enough to be preserved after its demise and have been dispersed throughout the executive branch.

One such operation was identified by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt who indicated, during the December 1995 ceremony honoring the Bureau's accomplishments, that he was pleased the important health and safety functions would be continued by the federal government. Also slated for preservation were segments of the Minerals Information program, environmental and materials research, upkeep of coal and non-coal mine maps, and the Mineral Land Assessment project in Alaska.

The helium program, was targeted by separate legislation and destined for significant downsizing by 1998. Whereas all of the affected processes once resided in a single agency, citizens will now have to search through a multitude of federal organizations to obtain mining and minerals information. This article is intended to assist in that endeavor.

During the 1995 fiscal year, personnel of the USBM numbered approximately 2200. Faced with a budget reduction of $20 million and reading "the writing on the wall," 450 clairvoyants elected to retire during that fiscal year. Of the remainder, the largest surviving segment of 527 were initially transferred in 1996 to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy in the Department of Energy (DOE). Those transferred to DOE included the personnel in Albany, Oregon involved in advanced materials research and those in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Spokane, Washington conducting health and safety research. In addition, there was a group in Pittsburgh performing mining-related environmental research which was relocated to DOE. In late 1996, the personnel at Pittsburgh and Spokane involved in health and safety research were reassigned, once again, this time to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the second transferral of the Pittsburgh Center, their environmental research component remained with the fossil energy branch in DOE. Subsequently, DOE decided to de-emphasize mining-related environmental research and to redistribute most of those involved in that research into other components of DOE. Despite the disruptions faced by the Pittsburgh and Spokane Centers, it was a far better fate than most of the Bureau's Research Centers that were closed including those in Denver, Colorado; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; Reno, Nevada; Rolla, Missouri; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Salt Lake City, Utah. Also abolished were the Field Operations Centers in Denver and Spokane, and all of the associated headquarters functions in Washington, D.C. All of the employees who were not transferred, were dismissed by the end of March 1996.

The second largest portion of the USBM staff to be relocated came from the mineral data collection and analysis program. Approximately 170 staff from that program were reassigned to the USGS where, coincidentally, that function had resided in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That relocated group now constitutes the major part of the Minerals Information Team situated at Reston, Virginia in the USGS Geologic Division. The team will continue to publish many of the documents formerly prepared by the USBM including the Minerals Yearbook, Mineral Commodity Summaries, the monthly, quarterly and annual Mineral Industry Surveys, Mineral Industry Indicators, and material flow studies.

The Mineral Land Assessment projects in Anchorage and Juneau, Alaska were reassigned to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in that state.

The management of the helium program was also placed, albeit temporarily, in BLM. Although the federal government will continue to manage and operate its huge helium reserve over the next couple of decades, legislation passed in the last Congress decreed that refinery operations will cease during 1998 with an accompanying reduction in staff from 170 to around 40. The care and feeding of coal and non-coal mine maps will now be the responsibility of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement within the Department of the Interior.

In February 1996, 1200 employees were terminated under what the federal government terms a Reduction in Force (RIF). Fortunately for some there is life after the Bureau of Mines. Kudos go to the closure team who did an outstanding job in the extremely short timeframe in developing options and alternatives for displaced employees. It must be recognized that while the team operated, the President and Congress squabbled over the budget causing government-wide shut downs, Washington experienced two major snow storms causing additional work stoppages, and for those who still felt the spirit, there was the opportunity to observe the holiday season. It is estimated by the closure team that approximately 350 personnel found homes either on a temporary or permanent basis in other federal agencies, while several hundred others opted for retirement. Yet it appears, over a year later that several hundred people have changed careers or, tragically, are still unemployed.

The Government Affairs Column is a bimonthly feature written by John Dragonetti. John Dragonetti is the Senior Advisor the American Geological Institute's Government Affairs Program. The author is indebted to the many former Bureau employees principally George Coakley, John Murphy, and Bob Doyle, who provided the bulk of the information contained in this article.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by John Dragonetti, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated March 24, 1997

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