CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials are seeking to narrow the list of coal-mine operators considered for tougher enforcement actions, at least in part to address staffing and other resource issues that apparently continue to hamper the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In announcing a new "pattern of violations" policy, MSHA chief Joe Main said the agency's previous guidelines "cast too broad a net" and that changes would "let MSHA focus its attention on those mines that are putting miners at greatest risk."
Main and his boss, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, have made reforming the pattern of violations program among their top priorities at MSHA following the April 5 deaths of 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
But on Wednesday, at least one longtime mine safety advocate -- and strong supporter of Main's -- was not impressed with the pattern of violations policy changes announced by MSHA.
"This may be an improvement, but it's a baby step where giant steps are needed," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and mine safety lawyer in Kentucky.
Coal industry officials gave the MSHA policy an initial warm reaction. The United Mine Workers union said it is a step in the right direction, but falls short of the broader changes UMW officials believe are needed.
Under federal law, MSHA has authority to take tougher enforcement actions against mine operators with a "pattern of violations ... which are of such nature as could have significantly and substantially" created health or safety hazards.
Mine operations cited for repeated violations can be subjected to closure orders for future violations until the mine receives a clean inspection.
Congress gave MSHA this authority in 1977, in response to the disaster a year earlier at Kentucky's Scotia Mine, which had been cited for repeated problems but not faced tougher enforcement action. Since then, though, MSHA has seldom tried to use this authority and has never successfully put a single mining operation under a violations pattern order.
In late June, the Labor Department Inspector General reported that MSHA officials had excluded mines from tougher enforcement reviews because of "resource limitations." At the same time, Obama administration officials were telling Congress that MSHA had adequate resources to do its job.
Broader changes to the system are pending in Congress, and MSHA has promised to propose an overhaul of its pattern of violations regulations by January.