Federal regulators have allowed mine operators to avoid fines for thousands of health and safety citations, despite a federal law that requires monetary penalties for such violations, government officials have confirmed.
Over the last six years, the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration did not assess civil penalties for about 4,000 violations, according to preliminary MSHA data.
Most of the violations involve situations where MSHA did not assess monetary penalties within 18 months of issuing a citation. Agency officials believe that is the legal time limit for doing so.
MSHA officials emphasized that less than 1 percent of all violations cited by agency inspectors were involved, and said steps are being taken to fix the problem.
But at least one of the citations involves a violation that MSHA inspectors concluded was partly responsible for the December 2005 death of an underground miner in Kentucky.
The revelation is another major setback for MSHA, which is still trying to catch up on missed mandatory inspections and implement far-reaching safety laws passed after a series of disasters in 2006 and 2007.
"There is no doubt that there is a problem," said Richard Stickler, acting assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA.
In a Thursday interview, Stickler said he was told of the problem a week earlier and had ordered his staff to quickly correct it.
"Any violation that we write and don't assess a penalty for, that's a big problem to me," Stickler said.
Previously, Stickler had been touting increased numbers of citations and fines being issued by MSHA under new regulations as proof that the agency is on the right track.
"The amount of penalties we assessed increased over 100 percent last year," Stickler said in a Jan. 10 speech to the West Virginia Coal Association. "I believe this increased penalty structure will provide a greater incentive for operators to ensure that safety and health laws are followed, which will result in safer working conditions for our miners."
And on Friday, MSHA posted new data on its Web site to highlight increased numbers of inspections, citations and fines.
MSHA officials apparently stumbled upon the fine assessment problem while discussing recent Louisville Courier-Journal articles about inaction by Kentucky state officials in the death of miner Bud Morris at H&D Mining's Mine No. 3 in Harlan County.
On Dec. 30, 2005, Morris bled to death after his legs were severed when a loaded coal car accidentally rammed him.
MSHA investigators concluded "complications to the victim's recovery occurred because proper first-aid was not given ... the mine operator did not ensure that the section foreman, as the select supervisor, was properly trained to perform first-aid."
MSHA cited H&D Mining, stating "this injury became a fatality because basic first-aid was not properly performed prior to the injured employee being transported.
"H&D's failure to conduct the required select supervisor first-aid training contributed to the victim not receiving the proper first-aid at the mine," the MSHA citation said.
On Friday, MSHA records indicated H&D Mining had never been fined for this citation.
Over the last few weeks, MSHA officials apparently discovered that fact, and it led them to investigate how many other citations had also gone without any fines.