A published report says Kentucky coal operators owe more in delinquent fines to federal authorities for mine safety violations than any other state.
The Courier-Journal said the finding is from an analysis it did of records from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Records show that Kentucky mine operators owe MSHA $29.2 million, which is 40 percent of the $73.6 million total owed to the agency in mine safety fines. Mine operators in West Virginia ranked second, owing MSHA $14.7 million in delinquent fines.
The analysis showed many of the fines are years old, some stemming from safety violations in 1993.
Wes Addington of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, which represents coal miners in safety and health issues, says it shows that MSHA doesn’t have enough regulatory power.
“There’s no deterrent at all for companies that don’t play by the rules,” he said. “If you don’t pay a single cent, nothing will happen.”
MSHA chief Joseph Main, however, said the agency has “a very high collection rate — 85-90 percent.”
It collected $104 million last year in penalties, which is 84 percent of the fines it assessed. In 2006 and 2007, MSHA collected 90 percent of the penalties it assessed.
In his statement, Main said the agency is “taking a hard look at mine operators that do not pay their penalties and will continue working with other agencies that have an obligation to collect delinquent debt.”
Former mine safety official Tony Oppegard says MSHA needs more power to collect delinquent fines.
“Presumably unsafe conditions still are being abated (when MSHA safety citations are issued), but it does make a mockery of the inspection process to a certain extent” if fines aren’t paid, Oppegard said.
“If you can continue mining and making money, you are devaluing miners’ lives,” he said.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett noted that the coal industry has a constitutional right to appeal any fines, but added that “if a final order has been rendered, and at that point you’ve exhausted any kind of legal recourse, payment should be made.”