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.
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Obama push to unclog backlog of contested mine-safety citations is backfiring
Critics disagree. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who sponsored the Miner Safety and Health Act that passed the House in July, says that mining companies are not only clogging the system but also using their influence to prevent meaningful reforms from getting through Congress.
"Right now, mine operators are not paying much of a price for being a repeat violator. They created this system, and they are continuing to game it. They don't want it to change," he said. "Clearly, the process in Congress has broken down in favor of the mine owners, the lawbreakers."
The lag time has also caused many cases to go cold. New lawyers hired by the Labor Department to tackle the backlog are finding that some of the inspectors who issued the citations are retired or that their memories, along with those of other witnesses, have sometimes faded and become unreliable.
The concern of some is that settlement offers made by Labor officials, criticized as too generous by commission judges in recent months, will continue to erode if cases can't be effectively prosecuted.
Even when mine owners are cited for hazards that might have directly led to the death of a miner, they often fight them, a Washington Post review of hundreds of federal records showed.
In Kentucky, state and federal officials had shut down parts of the Dotiki mine at least six times in the months leading up to the deaths of Justin Travis and Michael Carter. Each time it was because bolts that hold the mine's roof together had been spaced too far apart, records show.
On April 28, Travis and Carter - miners in their 20s - died under a collapsed roof.
Kentucky authorities who investigated the incident concluded in July that the mine operator, Webster County Coal, had failed to properly stabilize its roof. Federal regulators issued three citations, with fines totaling more than $20,000, after the incident, alleging the same roof problem.
Each of these federal citations is being contested by Alliance Resource Partners, Webster's parent company.
Company officials did not return calls seeking comment. However, in its Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Alliance officials said that the company disagrees with state and federal regulators and that its investigation concluded the fatal incident was caused by "unpredictable and unforeseen geological conditions."
Travis's father, Philip Travis, works in safety at the same mine. He said that he agrees with the company's conclusion. "It wouldn't have mattered if [an inspector] had been standing right there beside of them," he said. "It still would have happened."
However, John Whitfield, the attorney for Justin Travis's widow, Sandy Travis, said that in his more than 20 years of representing miners' families, his clients have repeatedly expressed frustration over the mine owner's ability to tie the system into knots with little or no change.