Will bigger fines reduce mine safety violations?
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While a new fine structure raises the stakes for mine operators who violate health and safety regulations, skeptics say the changes will be futile unless inspectors feel free to cite mines for violations.
Too often, they say, that hasn't been the case -- and without vigorous enforcement by inspectors, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's new structure for assessing civil penalties against mine operators may not change much.
"There's a lot of pressure on the inspectors anymore," said Lee Ratliff, of Jemison, Ala., who was western district manager for metal/nonmetal mines until his retirement two years ago. "If they write any kind of heavy paper [major citation], companies have a free rein to call [MSHA] and complain."
Sometimes the call to MSHA headquarters was placed while the inspector was still in the mine "and then Arlington will be calling me [in the district office] and say, 'What is wrong with this inspector?'
"It doesn't take a fool to figure out, 'I'd better not write this citation or I'll be in a bunch of trouble.' "
In the five months since he took over MSHA's top job, Richard Stickler has made clear his intent to focus on enforcement.
"I have traveled nationwide since becoming the head of MSHA to meet our inspectors to make sure they know firsthand that I expect the mine safety laws to be enforced and complied with," said Mr. Stickler, in a statement issued on Friday.
"Almost all mine safety and health laws are on the books because miners died, and most fatal accidents occur because these laws are not complied with. Operators who do not comply with mandatory mine safety laws will be held accountable."
When they go into effect next month, the civil penalties announced Thursday will increase across the board, topping out at $220,000 for the most egregious violations.
Once a citation is written, the mine operator can request a conference to appeal the assessment, and a further appeal can be made before an administrative law judge. Some mines have routinely appealed every major citation, delaying payment and often getting a reduced fine.
In one of the more recent examples, the operators of the Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama were able to reduce $435,000 in fines assessed after a September 2001 explosion killed 13 miners to $3,000 four years later.
The reduced fines "have really killed the morale of inspectors," said retired inspector Francis "Shorty" Wehr. "[Inspectors] figure, 'Why should I write it up? They are not going to penalize them for it.' "
MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot says the agency collects about 85 percent of what it is owed. In 2005, that amounted to $18.4 million brought in of the $22.4 million owed.
There is debate about how effective fines are.
Dr. Anthony Robbins, the former head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said recently that fines should be high enough to deter violations.
"When you go into a mine, there should be near-complete compliance. If there's not, you're not fining them enough," he said.
But Bruce Watzman, representing industry interests as vice president for Safety, Health and Human Resources for the National Mining Association, said in his submitted testimony to MSHA that operators understand that safe mines are productive mines.
"These factors, not civil penalties, are the inducement for operators to be proactive and to take measures to prevent safety and health hazards."
In wake of the three biggest coal mine disasters last year, though, the safety and compliance records for each of the mines came under scrutiny:
West Virginia's now-idle Sago Mine, where 12 miners died following a Jan. 2 explosion last year, had been cited more than 200 times for violations in 2005, and nearly half of the violations were considered "significant and substantial."
Aracoma Coal's Alma Mine in Logan County, W.Va., where two miners died 17 days after Sago, has spurred a federal criminal investigation.
And the Kentucky Darby Mine, where five miners died in May, is delinquent in paying more than 40 fines dating back nearly two years, according to MSHA's Web site. The mine is currently not producing coal.
The national attention from the deaths at Sago, Alma and Darby helped propel legislative action that led to the enactment of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which was signed into law by President Bush in June, and revision of how civil penalties are assessed. It remains to be seen how the new fine structure will play out.
Mr. Wehr, in submitted comments about the new penalty structure, told MSHA that fines don't work because some operators view them as a cost of doing business. The best way to insure compliance, he said, is to threaten to shut down that part of the mine until the problem is fixed.
But such a move can have consequences for the inspector, said Mr. Ratliff.
"Any time you go to shut an operation down for a violation, it's an unwritten rule that you've got to call your district and get permission and they're not going to want you to do it. It's almost taboo."
Noticeably absent among those offering comments on MSHA's proposed rule were miners, a point noted by Tony Oppegard, an attorney representing some of the Kentucky Darby families.
"Has MSHA ever wondered why virtually no non-union miners from eastern Kentucky ever appear at MSHA-sponsored public hearings to voice their opinion?" Mr. Oppegard asked in his comments.
"The answer is not complicated: If a miner did so, he would soon find himself without a job ... just as miners in Eastern Kentucky are routinely discharged or discriminated against in other ways for making safety complaints or for refusing to work in unsafe conditions."
First Published March 25, 2007 12:00 am