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Tomblin softens increase in mine safety fines

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration has softened a proposed rule aimed at increasing monetary fines for violations of state mine safety and health standards.

The proposal eliminates across-the-board civil penalty hikes the West Virginia Coal Association complained about, confining the increases only to fines of $500 or more.

The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training made the change in a proposed rule filed Tuesday with the Secretary of State's office, after receiving final approval from the governor.

"The intent was to increase the penalties for the more serious violations, rather than the less serious violations," said Peter Markham, Tomblin's general counsel.

Under West Virginia law, the agency director is required to assess civil penalties for all violations of state mine health and safety standards. As part of last year's mine safety legislation, lawmakers increased the maximum allowed penalty from $3,000 to $5,000.

State law gives the mine safety office authority to write rules spelling formulas for assessing penalties up to that maximum amount. The rules must consider a mine operator's history of previous violations, level of negligence, the size of the company involved, the gravity of the violation, and the "demonstrated good faith" of the operator to achieve compliance.

Last July, then-state mine safety chief C.A. Phillips proposed a rule to implement the increase in maximum allowable penalties.

Phillips proposed an across-the-board increase, changing the formula used so that the maximum penalty increased from $3,000 to $5,000.

Lesser fines would have also increased, all by about 66 percent, to match the increase in the maximum. A fine of $60 would go up to $100. A fine of $480 would go up to $800.

Phillips said at the time that the result was "minimal" increases and "not a dramatic increase" in monetary penalties paid by the mining industry.

"While an increase in the maximum civil penalty does result in corresponding increases in the civil penalties for lesser violations ... it is not expected that the increase will have a significant impact on revenues because again they are relatively minor," the proposal said.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, complained that the legislation "was not intended to raise penalties across the board."

"All evidence behind this change to state law only references an increase in the 'maximum' penalty," Hamilton said in an email to the state.

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


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