June 19, 2018
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A Regulatory Black Hole

A lot of anger has been directed at the company that owned the West Virginia mine where 29 miners died earlier this month. There will be lawsuits directed at the company and congressional hearings where its executives will be questioned.

At the same time, a critical look must be directed at federal regulators that allow dangerous mines such as the Upper Big Branch to continue operating. Questions must be answered about why regulators allow millions of dollars’ worth of fines to pile up while corrective action is deferred.

According to a review by USA Today, nearly $90 million worth of coal mine fines remain unpaid. Under federal rules, fines are not paid while an incident is under appeal. Mines now routinely appeal fines, knowing the cases will be tied up in a lengthy backlog at the understaffed Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

Like many other federal agencies, the Mine Safety and Health Administration often negotiates a penalty payment rather than assessing the full fine allowed by the law. This system has long been thought to encourage companies to cooperate with federal regulators to correct problems. In the case of mining, it appears it doesn’t work.

The Upper Brig Branch mine was cited for 515 safety citations last year. That’s nearly double the national average for violations at similar mines. In the last year, inspectors found dozens of violations so dangerous they ordered miners out of the mine until the problems — including exposed wiring and deep water — were fixed.

Still, the mine had paid only one fine since 2007, USA Today found. It paid $10,750, but had appealed or was delinquent on 21 major fines worth $505,000 the paper said.

This raises two questions that lawmakers must answer. The first is whether the fines are big enough to force safety improvements. If not, they must be raised. Human lives are too high a cost to pay for safety deficiencies.

The second is whether the appeal process simply allows companies to disguise or avoid their safety problems. This is unacceptable and puts miners’ lives at risk every time they descend into a mine.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has called for Senate hearings on the Upper Big Branch disaster. He and others should ask pointed questions of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy.

But, they must also ask difficult questions of — and demand stricter enforcement from — mine regulators if they are to fix a system that clearly is broken.

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