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Mine fines going up, but details sketchy

The Bush administration said Thursday that it plans to increase fines for mine safety violations, but did not provide any details of its proposal.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials announced their plan amid continued attacks on the agency’s record following a series of fatal accidents.

David G. Dye, acting MSHA chief, said that the agency would “initiate new rulemaking” to revise the formula it uses to determine monetary penalties.

“MSHA’s current penalty structure is 25 years old and needs updating to strengthen incentives for compliance,” Dye said in a statement.

An MSHA news release provided no details, and agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said that none were available Thursday. Fillpot did not know when MSHA would provide further information or publish a draft rule change in the Federal Register.

“I haven’t heard a timeframe yet,” Fillpot said.

On Feb. 8, MSHA announced it would implement “emergency temporary standards” to improve mine rescue equipment. Details of that proposal have also not been made public, and no timetable has been announced.

MSHA critics welcomed the agency’s announcement that it would rewrite penalty rules, but said that they were anxious to see the fine print.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said MSHA has the ability to levy larger fines, but chooses not to do so.

“MSHA’s announcement regarding mine safety penalties is vague and ambiguous, and detracts from the real debate about how to ensure effective penalties,” Byrd said. “MSHA has not been levying the current maximum penalty, as evidenced by the Sago Mine, where the operator was a habitual violator who never paid fines higher than $400.”

Under the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, monetary fines were mandated for all violations cited by government inspectors. Congress also sets a limit on the maximum fines allowed.

MSHA calculates fine amounts below the maximum, scoring the violation on a number of criteria, including history of previous violations, size of the operation, level of negligence, and good faith in fixing the cited problem.

In its news release, MSHA said the rules to govern that scoring system have “remained largely unchanged since 1982.”

That year, the Reagan administration created a special provision to charge operators $20 for minor violations.

The United Mine Workers challenged that language in court, and part of the rule was overturned.

In 1990, Congress required MSHA to increase the maximum fines allowed from $10,000 to $50,000.

At the time, industry officials complained that the new fine amounts “were too great and would cause significant financial hardship for many mine operators,” MSHA said when it implemented the increase two years later.

MSHA projected that change would double the annual fines to more than $31.5 million, records show.

With two rule changes in 1992, the first Bush administration narrowed the scope of the limited fines for minor violations.

One change required those violations to be included in mine histories used to determine whether companies were repeat violators. The Reagan administration rule had excluded those from consideration.

The other increased the minor violation fines to $50 and prohibited using the $50 fines for mines with excessive violation histories.

MSHA adjusted its maximum fines for inflation in 1998 and 2003, according to agency records.

Today, the maximum fine is $60,000.

The Bush administration has said for several years that it favors increasing that to $220,000. Neither MSHA leaders nor other administration officials have actively promoted the proposal.

In a Jan. 31 report, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said that the median amount of major MSHA fines proposed has decreased by 43 percent under the Bush administration. Also, criminal convictions for mine safety violations are down 55 percent, Miller said.

The Indiana AFL-CIO has criticized MSHA’s enforcement at the Sago Mine by pointing out that the total fines in 2004 and 2005 were $33,600, compared to the $550,000 fine levied against CBS for showing Janet Jackson’s breast during the 2004 Super Bowl.

“A review of MSHA’s lax penalty standards is long overdue,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. “For too long, the agency has allowed companies that repeatedly violate safety laws to pay fines lower than most parking tickets.

“Any new standards must ensure that companies that repeatedly violate safety rules and put workers at risk of injury must receive fines that serve as real deterrents to jeopardizing miners’ safety — not mere slaps on the wrist,” Kennedy said. “And we must enforce these fines and not allow violators to shirk their responsibilities through repeated appeals.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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