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‘Lack of Leadership’ by Regulators Put Miners at Risk, Gov’t Report Says

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Upper Big Branch mine memorial in Mt Hope, WV. (Photo by Flickr user jamiev_03.)

Federal mine-safety regulators have failed to take tough enforcement action against mines with a history of repeated violations, according to a government report released this week. The Labor Department’s inspector general faulted the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s “lack of leadership” in administering a program that was supposed to catch mines with patterns of violations.

The inspector general’s investigation was started after the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia exploded in April, killing 29 miners. Federal mine safety regulators blamed the lapse in oversight on a faulty computer application that should’ve prompted them to issue a warning to mine operators months in advance of the fatal accident.

According to the 1977 Mine Act, when regulators identify a “pattern of violations,” they have the authority to take tougher enforcement actions, which could include shutting down the mine or seeking a court injunction to do so. But since the law’s enactment, the agency has not exercised its authority, according to the report, and while it warned operators that a mine could be designated with “pattern of violation” status, the agency has come close to following through with the warning only once in more than three decades. From the report [PDF]:

Successful administration of this authority has been hampered by a lack of leadership and priority in the Department across various Administrations, which in turn allowed the rulemaking process to stall and fall victim to the competing interests of the industry, the operators, and the unions representing the miners as to how that authority should be administered.

Operators receiving warnings about their mine’s potential “pattern of violations” status also had ways to stall enforcement action by submitting plans about how they intended to correct the problems. According to the report, however, these plans sometimes seemed to be “a perfunctory exercise.”

“By submitting a written plan, no matter how minimal its content, a mine operator obtained additional time before MSHA made a determination of the mine’s [pattern of violations] status,” the report noted.

As the reporting in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster revealed, mine operators also frequently challenged the violations, putting regulators in a bind. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in August:

Upper Big Branch was cited repeatedly for serious violations, but Massey challenged most of them. While a case is pending — they can take years to be resolved — MSHA cannot count the violation toward putting a mine under the "pattern of violation" status.

The report also noted that the computer application used by the agency to sift through data and identify problem mines had errors that caused unreliable results. It also said samples of coal dust collected from mines weren’t processed in a timely manner. (Samples taken a month before the Upper Big Branch explosion, for instance, were found to be in violation of regulatory standards, but they weren’t processed until after the accident, according to the report.)

The agency’s director has acknowledged the problems with the current program, and this week announced intentions to overhaul its program and implement new screening criteria for identifying the nation’s most dangerous mines.

"Since the passage of the Mine Act more than 30 years ago, not one mining operation has ever been placed on a pattern of violations. We have known for some time that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed,” Mine Safety chief Joseph Main said in a statement. “Our goal with each of these reform efforts is to identify mines with a pattern of dangerous conditions and encourage them to improve their safety records. If a mine fails to do so, it will be placed into [pattern of violations] status.”

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