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Mines avoid crackdowns by challenging safety citations

Grieving relatives began burying victims of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster Friday. More than 300 people packed a church for the funeral of Benny Willingham, a 61-year-old miner who was five weeks from retiring when he died. (April 9)

"If cases are stuck for months or years at the review commission, MSHA cannot impose stronger penalties for the worst mine operators," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the labor committee, said at a hearing in February on the backlog issue.

Two more judges are scheduled to start working at the review commission April 26, and the commission has a budget to expand the number of judges to 18. But McCord said 28 would be needed to deal with the backlog.

J. Davitt McAteer, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, said the issue can create dangers at mines. "Right now the inspector walks in and says, 'I'm going to issue this paper,' " he said. "You are the mine foreman. You say, 'Issue anything you want. Won't make any difference; I'm turning it over to the lawyers, and they will jam it up in the system in Washington. You won't ever see a dime.' It goes into the paper-shuffle world away from safety."

Because companies don't pay fines for contested citations, Massey has not paid more than $1.1 million in penalties for the 352 violations it is challenging, records show.

The most challenges

Figures show that Massey tops the coal industry in challenging citations. Last year, Massey contested 34 percent of its alleged violations, compared with the national average of 27 percent that year. Massey is contesting violations valued at $10 million, a total of 11.2 percent of all the contested violations before the commission. The second-highest is CONSOL Energy, with violations totaling $7.3 million, representing 7.8 percent of contests before the commission.

Congressional sources said lawmakers seeking to reform the safety process would look again to the S-MINER Act, a measure proposed in 2007 that narrowly passed the House but did not come to a vote in the Senate. That bill would have given MSHA greater subpoena and enforcement powers, set stricter limits on combustible coal dust levels and made it harder for mine operators to avoid being labeled as having shown a pattern of violations.

In testimony to the House subcommittee on workforce protections, the National Mining Association said that "to impose further legislation before the full impact of the original MINER Act can be comprehensively measured is premature."

Staff writers David Fahrenthold in West Virginia and Lori Montgomery and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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