Mines, U.S. Bureau of

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MINES, U.S. BUREAU OF. In 1910, Congress passed the Organic Act (Public Law 179), officially creating the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM). Dr. Joseph A. Holmes, a geologist and professor, was the bureau's first director. The bureau's first priority under Holmes's direction was the reduction of the alarmingly high number of deaths in mining accidents. In 1913, however, the bureau's scope of authority expanded to include the collection, analysis, and dissemination of economic data with in the mining industry. In 1925, the USBM was moved from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Commerce, where it became the principal collector of mineral statistics and acquired the responsibility of producing, conserving, and exploiting helium gas, important at the time to national defense.

The influence of the labor movement in the late 1930s paved the way for the Coal Mine Inspection Act of 1941. This act gave the USBM authority to inspect mines for safety conditions and recommend corrective measures, although enforcement power remained limited until Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, establishing mandatory standards and making it possible for the USBM to research alternative mining procedures. The Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act of 1977 addressed for the first time regulatory procedures concerning coal, metal, and nonmetal mining operations, as well as research germane to all three types of mining.

USBM scientists and industry personnel initially worked together to develop new equipment and technologies, but because of concern over potential conflicts of interest the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA) was created in 1973 to handle regulatory functions, such as enforcing health and safety regulations, assessing penalties when violations occurred, developing safety and health standards, and providing training and education. MESA later became the Mine Safety and Health Administration under the Department of Labor, while the USBM retained responsibility for research and development. The Office of Coal Research was created in 1960 under the Department of the Interior, and then became part of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1974, which ultimately became part of the Department of Energy.

During World War II, USBM research focused on minerals critical to national defense, and eventually developed an international research program in 1961 to follow and study mineral resources around the world (the Mineral Attaché program), with a staff of country specialists surveying information from more than 160 countries. The Division of Mineral Information Systems, created in 1979, became in 1990 the Division of Statistics and Information Services, responsible for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data on mineral commodities around the world, including data on exploration, production, consumption, pricing, recycling, and mineral reserves and inventories.

The USBM also had an advisory role in making policy regarding mineral resources, the economic use of public land, and the preservation of natural resources. The USBM's assistant director of policy, in the late 1970s; the Division of Policy Analysis, in the early 1980s; the Office of Regulatory Projects Coordination, in the late 1980s; and the division of regulatory and policy analysis, in the 1990s; trace the increasing importance of the USBM's contribution to national policy. Beginning in 1970, the state liaison program employed specialists to coordinate the flow of information and material between mining related industries in the states and the USBM.

The USBM's extensive list of pragmatic accomplishments include significantly reducing the number of mine fatalities; discovering a method to remove sulfur from smelter fumes so as not to harm national forests (1911); developing a cost-effective method of extracting radium from domestic ores for use in the treatment of cancer (1912–1915); developing gas masks for American soldiers during World War I; doing research(1920s) on exhaust gases making it possible to properly ventilate the Holland Tunnel between New York and New Jersey; and developing technologies for the safe handling of radioactive materials (1940s), which ultimately led to the creation of the first atomic-powered submarine. In addition, during the 1960s and 1970s, the USBM evaluated vast areas of American wilderness in field studies and mineral surveys; developed a smokeless incinerator for use in burning junked automobiles; developed safer methods of treating mine drainage to protect drinking water sources and aquatic life; developed and implemented a variety of measures to stabilize the earth around mining cites, to control and extinguish fires at abandoned mines, and restore and reclaim mined lands; worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to identify mineral resources on Indian lands and negotiated production lease agreements that corresponded with tribal organization goals; and researched, in conjunction with the Federal Highway Commission, the use of synthetic ceramic aggregates to improve the surfaces of paved roads.

The USBM created and utilized various programs in order to carry out its work. The Commodities and Materials Program analyzed domestic and international trends in materials use, from exploration through disposal; the International Mineral Studies Program addressed global issues important to mining-dependent industries; the Land and Mineral Resources Program studied the potential for future mineral supplies; the Regulatory Impact Analysis Program provided scientific information to policymakers searching for effective and efficient solutions to environmental problems; the Statistics and Information Services Program provided critical information to legislative bodies and other federal agencies; research conducted by the Environmental Technology Program contributed scientific data for the development of new environmental technologies to reduce toxic waste products, decontaminate hazardous waste sites, and alleviate the adverse effects of coal mining; the Health, Safety, and Mining Technology program focused on research to find solutions to a variety of health and safety problems experienced by miners; the Minerals and Materials Science Program addressed possible ways to ensure a long-term supply of materials.

In 1995, a committee of members from both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives recommended that the USBM be abolished with in ninety days, citing budgetary concerns. After eighty-five years of performing extensive research and analysis, of gathering and disseminating information, and of contributing to policymaking, industry, and environmental, health, and safety legislation, the USBM officially closed on 30 September 1996. The Health and Safety Research Program and the Materials Research Program were transferred to the U.S. Department of Energy. The Land and Mineral Resources Program was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. Part of the Information and Analysis Program was transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey. The Helium Program was transferred initially to the Bureau of Land Management, but was finally closed in 1998. The USBM occupied a unique position, serving as a source of and conduit for information between industry and labor, between environmentalists and capitalists, between government and the people. The bureau's annual publications Minerals Yearbook and Mineral Facts and Problems were both internationally recognized reference works. The USBM enjoyed a reputation, free of many of the political machinations of other federal agencies, for conducting unbiased research and providing scientific data and analyses to leaders of both industry and government throughout its existence.


Ball, Howard. Cancer Factories: America's Tragic Quest for Uranium Self-Sufficiency. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Curran, Daniel J. Dead Laws for Dead Men: The Politics of Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Legislation. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

Derickson, Alan. Black Lung: Anatomy of a Public Health Disaster. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Kirk, William S. The History of the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, 1995.

Smith, Duane A. Mining America: The Industry and the Environment, 1800–1980. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987.

Christine E.Hoffman

See alsoCoal ; Coal Mining and Organized Labor ; Mineralogy ; Mining Towns .