WASHINGTON -- The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration on Friday announced a program to attack one of its most pressing challenges -- the enormous backlog of violation disputes.
According to MSHA, there are about 89,000 mine safety violations pending before the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission because they are being challenged by mine operators. MSHA will begin a 90-day pilot program Aug. 31 in three of its districts in which the agency and mine operators can schedule a conference prior to litigation to settle violation disputes.
Long before the deadly explosion at Upper Big Branch, MSHA identified the backlog as a priority. Since the April 5 blast that killed 29, MSHA has said the backlog was one reason it did not crack down sooner on Massey Energy.
Upper Big Branch was cited repeatedly for serious violations, but Massey challenged most of them. While a case is pending -- they can take years to be resolved -- MSHA cannot count the violation toward putting a mine under the "pattern of violation" status.
MSHA claims that most of the challenges are frivolous attempts to delay punishment. Mine operators claim that a challenge is the only way to tell their side of the story to an agency that has become more adversarial and punitive in recent years. There is a strong incentive for operators to contest cases, as well, as fines can be only reduced or eliminated -- and often are.
A conference process is one remedy both have agreed on.
"It is clear that the current conferencing structure is not working," MSHA head Joe Main said in a statement.
"By resolving factual disputes before a violation is contested, these citations will not be added to the enormous backlog of cases that have bogged down the judicial system. This process should also improve consistency in MSHA's enforcement of the Mine Act."
Congress also has appropriated extra funds this year -- $18.2 million for the Department of Labor and $3.8 million for the review commission -- to hire additional staff to handle the skyrocketing complaints.
Contested citations have risen considerably since the passage of the 2006 MINER Act, which increased enforcement and penalties for mines.
In 2006, 7 percent of cases were challenged; in 2009, it was 27 percent.
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.