CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors on Thursday took stepped-up enforcement actions against three coal mines -- including two in West Virginia -- citing them under a tougher new "pattern of violations" rule written in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration used the updated rule for the first time. The rule eliminates a preliminary warning letter to mine operators. It also allows MSHA to count citations and orders toward a mine's violation history even if those enforcement actions remain under appeal by the company.
One of the mines cited was Metinvest's Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, where two workers died in separate incidents on Feb. 7 and Feb. 19. The others were Patriot Coal's Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, and Tram Energy's Mine No. 1 in Floyd County, Ky.
MSHA chief Joe Main said the new rule, which took effect in March, replaces a previous regulation that safety advocates complained for years was weaker than what was required by the federal mine safety law.
"This really gets us back to what Congress intended," Main said.
In a phone interview, though, Main indicated no immediate plans to use other tough enforcement tools -- such as seeking a federal court mine closure injunction -- against any of the three mines.
"I think that the enforcement actions for right now that we have exercised are the enforcement actions for right now that we have exercised," Main said. "That does not mean that sometime down the road or for other reasons that we couldn't exercise other actions."
The three pattern-of-violation, or POV, notices are the latest in a renewed effort to use a program that lawmakers created in 1977, after finding that repeated citations by inspectors weren't enough to prevent a series of explosions that killed 23 miners and three inspectors at the Scotia Mine in Kentucky in March 1976.
Under the POV program, mines with a history of safety problems are kicked into a tougher enforcement bracket. Each time an additional serious citation is issued, that part of the mine is closed. Mines can have the pattern-of-violations designation lifted only if they go an entire quarterly inspection without a series violation.
But MSHA for years delayed in writing rules to implement the POV program. When it did write rules, critics say they had far too many loopholes. And screening of mine operators to look for repeat violators was sporadic.