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MSHA never pushed increased penalty proposal

The Bush administration never followed through on a proposal to increase fines for coal operators who violate federal mine safety rules, documents show.

In the days after the Sago Mine disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration touted the proposal as evidence of its efforts to protect coal miners.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan mentioned it in a Jan. 4 briefing.

On its Web site that week, MSHA highlighted the proposal in a document titled, “Questions and Answers about the Sago Mine Accident.”

As late as Thursday, the proposal was the lead item in a USA Today article about the Sago disaster. MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot told the paper that the larger fines would “raise the ante for mine operators to abide by the law.”

By then, MSHA had removed the reference to it from the Sago Mine disaster section of its Internet site.

Though mentioned by Labor Department officials in each of the last three years, the MSHA proposal to increase fines also seems to have disappeared.

In those years, no legislation to implement the proposal was ever introduced in Congress, records show.

Fillpot said Thursday that the administration sent such legislation to the Senate on Wednesday and would send an identical bill to the House later this month.

Starting with the 2004 financial year, the Labor Department mentioned the fine increase in a short fact sheet that described its budget proposal.

Under the proposal, the maximum fine for major mine safety violations would increase from $60,000 to $220,000.

At the same time, though, the proposal was never outlined in the agency’s actual budget proposal, which is read by lawmakers and congressional staff.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao did include the fine proposal in her prepared budget testimony to congressional appropriations committees in 2004 and 2005.

But MSHA chiefs Dave Lauriski and David Dye did not mention increasing fines in their own congressional statements.

In a February 2003 speech to the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association Annual Convention, Lauriski said: “This provision would be applied on a case-by-case basis and would be reserved for those violations that meet certain criteria demonstrated by those who have disrespect for the law.

“It would not affect penalties for the vast majority of violations, but would give the agency another tool to deal with the few cases in which mine operators expose miners to serious hazards without regard for the law,” he said, according to the prepared text of his speech.

MSHA has increased its penalties for mine safety violations once during the Bush administration.

In February 2003, MSHA increased the maximum civil penalties from $55,000 to $60,000.

When it announced that change, MSHA noted that the actions complied with a “Congressional mandate that agencies make periodic inflation adjustments in their civil penalties.”

MSHA did not mention the fact that it adjusted fines for inflation only after receiving a November 2002 letter from the General Accounting Office pointing out that the action should have been taken by June 2002.

The Bush administration’s only other action concerning penalties for mine safety violations came in a little-noticed memo issued in April 2004.

In that memo, MSHA coal safety and health chief Ray McKinney ordered agency field offices to first get approval from MSHA headquarters before issuing violations for fatalities and other major accidents.

Through this review by agency officials in Washington, D.C., McKinney said that “enforcement consistency will be enhanced, communications between headquarters and district enforcement personnel will be improved, accident prevention efforts will be better focused, and potential litigation will be reduced.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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