Federal regulators have allowed mine operators to avoid fines for thousands of health and safety citations, despite a federal law that requires monetary penalties for such violations, government officials have confirmed.Over the last six years, the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration did not assess civil penalties for about 4,000 violations, according to preliminary MSHA data.Most of the violations involve situations where MSHA did not assess monetary penalties within 18 months of issuing a citation. Agency officials believe that is the legal time limit for doing so.MSHA officials emphasized that less than 1 percent of all violations cited by agency inspectors were involved, and said steps are being taken to fix the problem.But at least one of the citations involves a violation that MSHA inspectors concluded was partly responsible for the December 2005 death of an underground miner in Kentucky.The revelation is another major setback for MSHA, which is still trying to catch up on missed mandatory inspections and implement far-reaching safety laws passed after a series of disasters in 2006 and 2007."There is no doubt that there is a problem," said Richard Stickler, acting assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA.In a Thursday interview, Stickler said he was told of the problem a week earlier and had ordered his staff to quickly correct it."Any violation that we write and don't assess a penalty for, that's a big problem to me," Stickler said.Previously, Stickler had been touting increased numbers of citations and fines being issued by MSHA under new regulations as proof that the agency is on the right track."The amount of penalties we assessed increased over 100 percent last year," Stickler said in a Jan. 10 speech to the West Virginia Coal Association. "I believe this increased penalty structure will provide a greater incentive for operators to ensure that safety and health laws are followed, which will result in safer working conditions for our miners."And on Friday, MSHA posted new data on its Web site to highlight increased numbers of inspections, citations and fines.MSHA officials apparently stumbled upon the fine assessment problem while discussing recent Louisville Courier-Journal articles about inaction by Kentucky state officials in the death of miner Bud Morris at H&D Mining's Mine No. 3 in Harlan County.On Dec. 30, 2005, Morris bled to death after his legs were severed when a loaded coal car accidentally rammed him.MSHA investigators concluded "complications to the victim's recovery occurred because proper first-aid was not given ... the mine operator did not ensure that the section foreman, as the select supervisor, was properly trained to perform first-aid."MSHA cited H&D Mining, stating "this injury became a fatality because basic first-aid was not properly performed prior to the injured employee being transported."H&D's failure to conduct the required select supervisor first-aid training contributed to the victim not receiving the proper first-aid at the mine," the MSHA citation said.On Friday, MSHA records indicated H&D Mining had never been fined for this citation.Over the last few weeks, MSHA officials apparently discovered that fact, and it led them to investigate how many other citations had also gone without any fines.Tony Oppegard, a lawyer for Morris' widow, Stella Morris, said Friday morning he was shocked to learn that MSHA was not issuing the required fines."It's unbelievable, really," Oppegard said. "The bottom line is, why would it take them 18 months to assess a penalty in the first place?"This is very troubling," Oppegard said. "To think that you can have a fatality like what occurred in Bud's case that is not addressed by the agency is going to be troubling to the family."In 1969, Congress required monetary penalties for all violations of mandatory mine health and safety standards. Automatic fines were considered a major hammer toward forcing mine operators to comply with the law.But imposition of sufficient fines and collection of those penalties from mine operators has been a persistent problem since the law was passed.Stickler said last week that his staff had found citations without fines dating back to a few hundred citations issued in 1996.Stickler said that he was reviewing preliminary MSHA computer data for the period from 1996 to 2006, but did not want to make that detailed information public."I don't want to hand out numbers, because I don't think they're good numbers," Stickler said."There's not a trend that shows it's increasing," he added. "But it is a problem that appears to have been around for a few years."Other MSHA officials said the preliminary data showed about 4,000 citations issued between January 2000 and July 2006 did not have penalties assessed.On Friday, MSHA staffers were continuing to study agency computer records to try to make sure they had accurate figures.Matthew Faraci, an MSHA spokesman, said the problem involved "a small percentage of citations.""They appear as if they haven't been assessed, but we don't know for sure," Faraci said. "We're trying to figure this out."The day after Stickler learned of the problem, MSHA began a plan to better track citations and ensure that they were assessed penalties promptly."The goal is to make sure that citations and orders are assessed in a timely fashion," Faraci said.Jay Mattos, MSHA's director of assessments, said much of the problem stems from the agency's not assessing penalties within an 18-month window after citations were issued.Mattos said the 18-month policy stemmed from a court case, but that MSHA lawyers were reviewing it to determine its validity and scope.The 18-month time limit was spelled out in an August 1999 MSHA policy. It was meant to define what is a "reasonable time" for issuing penalties, which is the standard spelled out in federal law.