CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in February 2011 proposed a major rewrite of its "pattern of violations" rule, the agency said it should review the safety records of every mine in the country at least twice a year.
Reviewing safety histories once a year -- as was the rule at the time -- "would not adequately allow the agency to identify mines with recurring" violations that warranted tougher enforcement action, MSHA said in its proposal.
But earlier this year, when MSHA finalized its rule, agency officials backed off. The final rule, which took effect in March, requires MSHA to review mine safety records for potential "pattern of violations," of POV, actions only once per year.
In explaining its action, MSHA said there was nothing to stop the agency from doing more than the one required annual review.
"Under the final rule, the agency could conduct more than one review a year if conditions warrant, as it has done under the existing rule," MSHA explained in a Federal Register notice outlining its decision.
Now, though, MSHA chief Joe Main is refusing to say how often his agency will conduct POV reviews. During an interview last week, Main said he wants the industry to remain in the dark about how frequently - and when -- MSHA might act.
"Under the regulation, we are obligated to do one POV screening and action a year," Main said. "No one should ever take for granted that that is the maximum that will be exercised."
"And no one should ever know at what point in time MSHA plans on implementing the POV rule," Main said. "I think the mystery in this is going to help folks understand that they should not be complacent, expecting that will be the only time the agency does this."
Main made his comments last week, when MSHA issued its first POV notices under the new rule.
MSHA cited three coal mines, including two in West Virginia, putting them on POV status, which means every additional serious violation issue prompts an order temporarily closing that part of the mine in question.