This article incorrectly said that the Miner Safety and Health Act was passed by the House in July. It was passed by the House Education and Labor Committee that month but has not been passed by the full House. The article also misstated the month in which Congress approved $23 million in emergency funding to deal with a backlog of safety citations appealed by mine owners. The House gave its approval in May, but final approval from the House and Senate did not come until July.
Backlog of cases against mines on the increase
A high-priority Obama administration push to unclog a backlog of contested mine safety citations is backfiring.
After a West Virginia coal mine explosion in April exposed a weak link in a system designed to identify safety violations, the government has spent $23 million to reform the system. A key objective: reducing a two-year logjam of citations under appeal in order to ensure more effective industry responses to possible hazards.
Instead, the list of unresolved safety appeals has grown to 18,100 cases, from 16,600 at the time of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine. The explosion killed 29 men.
The increase has occurred, safety experts said, because more citations are being issued, and companies are fighting back harder than ever. The result is that instead of revolutionizing mine safety in the wake of the worst mining disaster in 40 years, some experts said government officials have succeeded only in generating increased litigation.
"They've made the problem worse, and the impact inspections are now kind of a meaningless threat," said Celeste Monforton, a senior Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) official in the Clinton administration, who is part of West Virginia's investigation into the April 5 disaster.
Nine men have died in U.S. coal mines since the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, a toll that has revealed serious shortcomings in the Obama administration's attempt to rein in the nation's most dangerous mines.
Administration officials said that the crackdown has worsened the crisis in the short term but that a growth in staffing from increased funding should eliminate the backlog.
Because the recent inspection blitz by the Labor Department's MSHA has focused on mines the agency considers to be the most high risk, many of the violations that inspectors have cited in recent months have been "significant and substantial."
Serious citations of that kind carry fines of thousands rather than hundreds of dollars and are twice as likely to be contested before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. Mine operators are required to immediately fix specific problems found by regulators when they are cited, even if they intend to fight the citation. But the one-time fixes do not address systemic problems.
Mining company officials say they are fighting the citations more than ever because, they said, many of them are faulty.
"The violations in the law are open to interpretation by the inspector. If we think there has been a misinterpretation of the law, of course we challenge it," said Nicholas Deluliis, chief operating officer for Consol Energy, which owns one of the mines where a worker died in July. "We're not trying to gum up the system."
Companies said that, when the government has agreed to settle their cases for reduced fines, it is often a sign that the inspectors who wrote the citations did so in error.