Mine operators around the country, like Massey Energy, owner of the deadly Upper Big Branch coal mine where 29 miners were killed in April, routinely escape tougher enforcement by appealing serious safety violations to a federal agency that’s bogged down with a 17,000-case backlog.
It can take the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) more than two years before it finally adjudicates a case. During the appeals process, operators like Massey with troubling safety records avoid being placed under a stricter safety watch because of their pattern of violations.
Last night, as part of an emergency supplemental funding bill, the U.S. House approved $22 million for FMSHRC and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to reduce the backlog of appeals. Says Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee:
It is clear that the seemingly indiscriminate appeals of nearly every significant safety violation by some mine operators are undermining important enforcement tools and putting miners’ lives at risk. This additional funding approved today will reverse a backlog that has been allowed to pile up since the Bush administration and is a step in the right direction in holding some of our most dangerous mine operators accountable.
Miller says it takes an average of 30 months to adjudicate a contested violation. In a preliminary report on the Upper Big Branch blast, MSHA says that Massey “contested the majority of its serious violation citations” that could have led to putting the mine under the tougher safety watch before the April 5 explosion.
From 2009 through March this year, MSHA inspectors cited the Upper Big Branch mine for more than 600 safety violations, nearly 40 percent of which were classified as “significant and substantial.” Also the Massey mine’s rate for repeated serious violations was 19 times higher than the national average, according to the report. But because Massey appealed the serious violations, it was able to avoid the stricter enforcement and inspections that a pattern of violations finding triggers.
The Senate already approved the bill and President Obama will sign it.