Correction to This Article
The article misstated the financial penalties assessed for violations at the Tiller No. 1 mine in southwestern Virginia. Annual fines have risen from about $20,000 to as high as $1 million and not, as the article said, from $34 million to $195 million. The incorrect information was provided by Knox Creek Coal, the Massey Energy subsidiary that runs the mine.

Mine safety often a battle between regulators and companies

A tug-of-war is playing out at many U.S. coal mines between regulators charged with keeping the mines safe and operators determined to keep them open. Miners are caught in between, concerned about safety yet fearful that over-regulation could threaten their jobs.
By Kimberly Kindy
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

RED ASH, VA. -- For nine years, Randy Lester has worked in a coal mine ranked by federal inspectors as one of the most dangerous in the nation, its crumbling, dark tunnels stitched together by a crude collection of steel plates, wire netting, resin and rebar.

The site is prone to cave-ins and rock falls, and inspectors have chronicled more than 625 serious offenses over the past three years that could pose an imminent threat to workers.

Yet "nitpicky" is how Lester described the inspectors as he sipped coffee one recent afternoon. He fears that government regulation of the mine ultimately would shut it down -- taking his job with it.

The Tiller No. 1 mine, where Lester works, illustrates the complications federal agencies face as they try to regulate the potentially hazardous sites from which the country gets some of its most vital natural resources.

As the federal government faces questions about its management of offshore drilling in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it also is under pressure to improve its supervision of the mining industry after a fatal explosion in April killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch mine, like Tiller operated by Massey Energy. It was the nation's deadliest coal mining accident in 40 years.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says the injury rate at Tiller is 40 percent higher than at Upper Big Branch and twice the national average. Even as MSHA inspectors prepare to reenter Upper Big Branch on Wednesday for the first inspection since the fatal accident, the agency has focused much of its energy in recent weeks on the infractions at Tiller. MSHA officials say they have spent more than 1,000 hours building a case that Tiller deserves to be the first mine in the country to face the toughest enforcement tool available to regulators.

The mine's owners and operators have devoted equal effort to fighting off the sanctions.

Any day now, a judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission is expected to rule on whether some of Tiller's contested violations are warranted. If they are upheld, the mine will be slapped with a "pattern of violations" status, giving inspectors new authority to demand that work be halted in the mine until dangerous conditions are corrected.

But if Massey convinces the judge to reduce just four of its hundreds of "significant and substantial" violations to a lesser category, it would be spared the "pattern of violations" (POV) status.

"It's a death sentence for a mine," said Dave Kramer, president of Knox Creek Coal, a Massey subsidiary that runs the Virginia mine.

Two weeks go, the MSHA sent six inspectors and three supervisors to Tiller to check for additional violations. Lester said he and his co-workers usually sound an alarm when they see state or federal inspectors approaching, radioing down to give the crew inside the mine as much as 45 minutes to spruce things up. Stan Suboleski, a Massey board member and former chief operating officer, said that workers look out for one another and that "given human nature, this is natural."

Lester said the constant presence of inspectors is unsettling. "This mine is safe," he said. "You can only do so much to hold the roof up; then the rest is up to God."

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