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Sago widow, daughter urge tougher MSHA fines

A widow and daughter of one of the Sago Mine disaster victims on Tuesday urged federal regulators to stiffen fines for mine safety violations.

“Fixing the problem should be cheaper than paying the fines,” said Deborah Hamner, whose husband George Junior Hamner died in the Jan. 2 Sago disaster.

Sara Bailey, Hamner’s daughter, said, “Nobody should have to die or worry about dying because a company violates safety laws.”

The two women spoke Tuesday in Charleston at a public hearing on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s proposal to rewrite the formula MSHA officials use to calculate fines for safety violations.

The proposal, published last month, is part of MSHA’s response to the Sago disaster, the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire, and the Kentucky Darby Mine disaster. Twelve miners died in the Sago explosion, two miners died at Aracoma and five people died in the Darby explosion.

The MSHA proposal includes language ordered by Congress to set a maximum penalty of $220,000 — up from $60,000 — for flagrant violations. It also includes a minimum penalty of $2,000 for violations cited by inspectors as “unwarrantable failures” to comply with safety standards.

MSHA estimates that the average fine would more than double under its proposal, from $213 per violation to $587 per violation, according to a Federal Register notice.

Several officials from West Virginia’s coal industry attended Tuesday’s public hearing at the Charleston Marriott, but none of them spoke about the MSHA proposal.

Five United Mine Workers officials spoke against the agency’s proposal, saying it contains several loopholes for the industry.

UMW officials criticized language that they said would help smaller coal companies avoid steeper fines, and at a change that reduces the amount of time considered when calculating previous violation histories from 24 months to 15 months.

Tim Baker, deputy director of the UMW’s national safety department, said that MSHA officials also should have included language to allow inspectors more leeway to shut down mining operations until serious safety problems are corrected.

“MSHA has missed the opportunity to look at the operator and say, ‘you’re not going to run it until it’s fixed,’ ” Baker said.

UMW officials also continued to oppose an MSHA proposal to eliminate the so-called “single penalty assessment,” which levies an automatic $60 fine for minor violations.

When it was first created during the Reagan administration, the UMW opposed this language, and went to court to fight it.

Last year, MSHA processed about two-thirds of the 117,000 citations issued nationwide as minor problems that qualified for the $60 fines.

Initially, UMW officials have said that they were concerned that the MSHA proposal would actually eliminate those citations altogether — and not just the automatic $60 fines.

Patricia Silvey, MSHA’s regulatory chief, said that the agency would continue to cite those violations. The change, she said, was to process fines for those violations using the agency’s standard formula. This, Silvey said, would increase the fines above the current $60 automatic penalty.

UMW safety officer Gary Trout said that he was still opposed to the change, because he worries MSHA inspectors would stop citing certain violations to help operators avoid the increased fines.

“You really need the single penalty standard,” Trout said. “If you don’t have it, inspectors will tend to not write certain violations.”

The last of six MSHA public hearings will be held Thursday in Pittsburgh. The agency will accept public comments on its proposal through Oct. 23.

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


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