CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials are seeking to narrow the list of coal-mine operators considered for tougher enforcement actions, at least in part to address staffing and other resource issues that apparently continue to hamper the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.In announcing a new "pattern of violations" policy, MSHA chief Joe Main said the agency's previous guidelines "cast too broad a net" and that changes would "let MSHA focus its attention on those mines that are putting miners at greatest risk."Main and his boss, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, have made reforming the pattern of violations program among their top priorities at MSHA following the April 5 deaths of 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.But on Wednesday, at least one longtime mine safety advocate -- and strong supporter of Main's -- was not impressed with the pattern of violations policy changes announced by MSHA.
"This may be an improvement, but it's a baby step where giant steps are needed," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and mine safety lawyer in Kentucky.Coal industry officials gave the MSHA policy an initial warm reaction. The United Mine Workers union said it is a step in the right direction, but falls short of the broader changes UMW officials believe are needed.Under federal law, MSHA has authority to take tougher enforcement actions against mine operators with a "pattern of violations ... which are of such nature as could have significantly and substantially" created health or safety hazards.Mine operations cited for repeated violations can be subjected to closure orders for future violations until the mine receives a clean inspection.Congress gave MSHA this authority in 1977, in response to the disaster a year earlier at Kentucky's Scotia Mine, which had been cited for repeated problems but not faced tougher enforcement action. Since then, though, MSHA has seldom tried to use this authority and has never successfully put a single mining operation under a violations pattern order.In late June, the Labor Department Inspector General reported that MSHA officials had excluded mines from tougher enforcement reviews because of "resource limitations." At the same time, Obama administration officials were telling Congress that MSHA had adequate resources to do its job.Broader changes to the system are pending in Congress, and MSHA has promised to propose an overhaul of its pattern of violations regulations by January.As an interim step, Main announced Monday a rewrite of his agency's "screening criteria," a complicated formula for how many of what type of violations and accidents deserve consideration for tougher enforcement."We are aggressively pursuing both regulatory and legislative reforms, but in the meantime, this new policy improves our ability to identify problems mines," Main said in a prepared statement.At the same time, MSHA officials said the new formula would likely reduce the number of mines that the agency considers for a pattern of violations order.Among other things, the formula increases the number of more serious violations needed for underground mines, from 20 in a two-year period to 50 in a one-year period.
"This is a way to focus enforcement resources," said Doug Parker, a special assistant to Main. "It is more focused on looking at mines with the worst records."Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the more narrow focus was one of the things industry was looking for in any changes to MSHA's pattern of violations process."We see some good concepts embedded in it," Raulston said Tuesday. "We're still looking at the details."But Oppegard said the narrowed focus is actually a major weakness in the new MSHA policy."It seems to me that MSHA is misjudging the seriousness of the problem of outlaw mine operators," Oppegard said. "They're saying, 'Let's get only the worst of the outlaws,' but there may be other outlaws that will be allowed to go on. A lot of outlaw operators are going to be able to escape."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.