You are hereWashington Post: Mines avoid crackdowns by challenging safety citations

Washington Post: Mines avoid crackdowns by challenging safety citations

April 10, 2010- A surge in the number of challenges to mine safety citations has clogged a federal appeals process, allowing 32 coal mines to avoid tougher enforcement measures last year, government safety officials said Friday.

Five of those mines are owned by Massey Energy, which is contesting more federal safety fines than any other coal mining company in the nation, according to data and federal officials. By contesting the citations, the 32 mines were able to avoid falling into a "potential pattern of violation" category, which would have brought closer scrutiny and moved regulators a step closer to the ability to restrict or shut down operations.

In many cases, those mines would have been at greater risk of penalties if regulators at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) later found even a single "significant and substantial" violation of safety standards. Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where at least 25 miners died in an explosion on Monday, had an unusually large number of those violations, including 54 in the past 12 months, a rate 11 times the national average.

Federal regulators have never sought to shut down an entire coal mine, and all companies have the right under law to appeal mine safety citations. But lawmakers are taking a new look at the process and whether it is paralyzing the safety agency's ability to enforce standards and prevent accidents like the one this week.

The backlog of contested citations has grown since the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act boosted the number of inspectors, stiffened fines and toughened safety regulations for the nation's coal mines, inadvertently overloading the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which has a backlog of more than 16,600 contested cases. The commission's judges are each handling more than 900 cases a year, compared with the 175 a year typically handled by judges at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees other workplaces. Two-thirds of penalties are being litigated, according to the House Education and Labor Committee.



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