Read the report : http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattooCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General have found that federal regulators are not identifying "scofflaw violators" who don't pay mine safety and health fines, allowing those mine operators to avoid debt-collection lawsuits or other enforcement actions.
The department's Mine Safety and Health Administration "does not have an accurate view" of the amount of delinquent fines it is owed or when the violations that drew those fines were committed, according to the Inspector General's report.
"We continue to view MSHA's debt delinquency information as unreliable," the IG said in a 34-page report issued Nov. 18.
The report on MSHA fines comes just seven weeks after another IG investigation found that agency officials publicly overstated their rate for completing required inspections of non-coal mines.
And the IG's latest findings show continuing problems with MSHA's enforcement practices, following the agency's admission in 2008 that it allowed the industry to avoid required monetary penalties for 5,000 safety violations dating back more than a decade.
MSHA chief Joe Main complained that the IG report did not provide a balanced portrayal of his agency's efforts regarding civil penalty assessments and collections.
"I note that the findings ... do not identify MSHA noncompliance with federal statutes or requirements," Main said in an Oct. 17 memo. "Rather, the recommendations refer to modifications of, or adherence to, MSHA internal policies and procedures that in some cases exceed federal requirements."
IG investigators examined MSHA's record collecting fines that were finalized in 2009 and 2010, and found that agency officials had collected 85 percent of the $147 million in penalties.
But MSHA did not always apply collected fines to the account of specific mine operators, or to the particular violations that drew the penalties in the first place.
"If payments did not include sufficient information to determine which penalty the payment was for, MSHA delayed payment application until it gathered the needed information," the IG report said. "As a result, violator debt balances were not up to date and MSHA could not be certain of the delinquency status of individual violator debts."
MSHA wanted to avoid starting debt-collection proceedings for mine operators who had actually paid their fines, but for whom the agency was not able to match payments with fines that were due.
So, MSHA officials in February 2008 created an "Exclusion List." Mine operators on it would not face debt-collection or other enforcement actions for unpaid fines "because of uncertainty caused by unapplied payments."