CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety regulators may have improperly excluded coal mines from tougher enforcement reviews because of agency "resource limitations," according to a new Department of Labor Inspector General's report issued late Wednesday.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials removed mines from their reviews for potential "pattern of violation" warning letters that could result in tougher enforcement actions if safety performance at the mines did not improve.
"We are very concerned about mines removed for reasons other than appropriate consideration of health and safety conditions at those mines," labor department inspector general Elliott P. Lewis said in a memo that described his agency's findings to date.
House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., had asked the inspector general to examine MSHA's pattern of violations system in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
Lewis said in his memo that MSHA's screening system for violation pattern warning letters had identified 89 mines for potential POV status between 2007 and 2009. But, the agency removed 21 of those mines from its initial screening list -- 10 of them because of an MSHA policy that allowed only one mine to be examined per field office and no more than three per MSHA district.
"MSHA is not subjecting these mines to the enhanced oversight that accompanies potential POV status, yet it does not have evidence that they had reduced their rate of significant and substantial violations," the inspector general's memo said. "As a result, miners may be subjected to increased safety risks."
In a prepared response, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said, "The Office of Inspector General reaffirms what we already knew: the pattern of violation process is badly broken.
"It's clear that we need to scrap the current system and put a new system in place that is focused on protecting miners' safety and health," Solis said. "The bottom line is that the system we use this year will be different than the system we used in the past, and we'll continue to work to get this system right in order to protect the safety and health of America's miners."
MSHA chief Joe Main said the inspector general's report examined a system that his administration inherited and is working to fix.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.