Mine Operators Often Go Unpunished for Citations

Associated Press
Monday, January 28, 2008

CHARLESTON, W.Va., Jan. 27 -- The federal agency that regulates the nation's mining industry says it has failed to penalize mine operators for thousands of citations issued since 2000, and the oversight could extend back more than a decade.

"And we would guess it goes back far beyond 1995, but because of a lack of electronic records before that year, I can't verify that," Matthew Faraci, spokesman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said Sunday. "Given that this seems to have been an endemic problem that has been with the agency for quite some time, the part that we're optimistic about is that we know about it and are working to fix it."

Preliminary data showed that penalties had not been assessed against operators for about 4,000 citations the agency issued between January 2000 and July 2006, the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail reported. MSHA Director Richard Stickler told the newspaper that the review also showed that penalties had never been assessed for a few hundred citations issued in 1996.

MSHA discovered the problem while looking into whether a Kentucky coal operator had been penalized following an accident on Dec. 30, 2005, in which a coal miner bled to death after not receiving proper first aid.

The agency's review showed that the company had never been fined, but Faraci told the Associated Press that the maximum fine of $60,000 was imposed Jan. 18.

MSHA typically has 18 months to assess a penalty after it issues a citation against a mine operator, but it made an exception in the Kentucky case because of the nature of the violation, Faraci said.

In a speech to West Virginia coal operators earlier this month, Stickler said that MSHA had improved its inspection and assessment process over the past year. He said the number of assessments against coal operators had increased from $20.2 million in 2006 to $40.4 million in 2007.

In November, the Labor Department's inspector general released an audit that showed MSHA had not made required inspections at 15 percent of the nation's underground coal mines.

During his recent speech, Stickler noted that the agency was on track to carry out required quarterly inspections at all U.S. underground coal mines for the first time in years.

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