Safety Officials Warn 13 Mines in 7 States

By | November 22, 2010

Federal regulators late Friday warned 13 mining operations in seven states, including two owned by troubled Massey Energy Co., to show improvement on safety or face stricter enforcement.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration says a 14th mining operation, Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia, also meets the criteria for inclusion on the list that might qualify as having a pattern of serious violations.

But the agency says actions against Upper Big Branch and a Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., are on hold until the completion of an investigation into an April blast that killed 29 men.

Virginia-based Massey said it will review the documents that the agency used to formulate its list, discuss the violations with officials and take corrective action.

“The company remains committed to producing coal safely,” the company said, insisting its safety record has been better than the industry average for 17 of the last 19 years.

The 13 sites identified as potentially having a pattern of serious violations include four coal mines in Kentucky, three in West Virginia and two in Tennessee. Illinois, Alabama, Montana and Nevada have one such location apiece, according to the agency.

The operations are the first to be considered for the status under new screening criteria designed to make it easier to crack down on mines with a history of safety problems.

The agency changed its criteria for the list after a computer error allowed Upper Big Branch to escape notice. The April 5 explosion was the deadliest at a U.S. coal mine in four decades and is the subject of criminal and civil investigations.

MSHA has been criticized for never designating a mine as a persistent violator, despite the fact that it’s long had the power to target those with patterns of violations, or POVs.

“I have been saying since I arrived at MSHA that the POV system is broken,” agency chief Joseph Main said in a statement. “This screening represents a positive step forward, but it won’t be the only step.”

He said statutory changes pending before Congress could help, too.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in a statement that without legislative reform, MSHA’s new notifications are “merely warnings to improve.”

The Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 would let MSHA place mines on a pattern of violations using citations instead of requiring final adjudicated orders, said Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

It also mandates sustained safety performance over 12 months rather than 90 days.

Without these changes, he said, “MSHA must jump through far too many legal hoops to compel timely improvements and ensure lasting changes to unsafe mine operations.”

Main said MSHA’s review process is not finished. Once a thorough audit is complete, more mines may be put on notice as potential pattern violators.

The agency now screens for mines with at least 50 citations for so-called significant and substantial violations within the past year and high rates of severe injuries, among other things. Friday’s list was culled from enforcement actions during the 12-month period ending Aug. 31.

If the mines on that list don’t show improvement, they face harsher enforcement.

MSHA will order miners out of the operation each time an inspector finds a serious violation, effectively cutting off production. In modern mining, halting production quickly results in losses because revenue drops even as fixed costs such as salaries stay the same.

Mines can get back into MSHA’s good graces if they adopt a corrective action program “with concrete, meaningful measures” to reduce violations, as well as “achievable benchmarks and milestones for implementing the program,” the agency said.

Those that implement such a plan would have no more than 110 days to meet the goals.

Operators that don’t embrace a corrective action plan must fix problems identified by MSHA within 50 days.

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Tim Huber in Charleston contributed to this report.

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