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Byrd obtains funds to clear up MSHA appeal backlog

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators will get more money to help clear up the backlog of mine safety appeals cases pending at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, thanks to action Thursday by Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

The West Virginia Democrat added $22 million for dealing with the backlog to a supplemental budget bill that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Included in the funding package was $18.2 million for the solicitor's office at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and $3.8 million for the review commission.

Earlier this year, MSHA chief Joe Main testified to Congress that a backlog of unresolved industry appeals of agency citations and enforcement orders had "severely reduced the deterrent value that penalties were meant to have."

Increased industry appeals had pushed the review commission's backlog to 82,000 violations and $210 million in penalties. MSHA officials say the appeals keep them from taking harsher enforcement actions against companies that challenge citations and orders, tying MSHA up at the commission or in court.

"Last month, a horrific explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners," Byrd said in a statement Thursday.

"We are learning that this was a disaster that should never have happened," Byrd said. "That mine had been cited for hundreds of safety violations -- citations that were appealed and ignored, and I dare say, were scoffed and laughed at by the guilty parties."

The $22 million in new funding continues an effort Byrd began last year to address the backlog in contested cases at the review commission. The agency's budget increased by $1.7 million in the 2010 budget year, and the MSHA solicitor's budget increased by $28 million in the last two years.

"We must reduce the backlog of contested safety violations," Byrd said. "Simply put, penalties must be paid, violations must be corrected, and the violators must be punished."

Initially, MSHA officials said they had been unable to put Massey Energy's Performance Coal -- which operates the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County -- in line for tougher enforcement for a "pattern of violations" because the operation had appealed so many of its pending citations and orders.

But later MSHA revealed that an internal computer glitch had failed to take several orders that Massey had not appealed into account, and that had those orders been considered, the mine would have been cited for a violations pattern.

MSHA officials have also conceded that they did not take other routes available to them, such as seeking a court injunction, to try to stop repeated violations at Upper Big Branch prior to the April 5 explosion.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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