"Regulations are just words written on paper," said union President Cecil Roberts. "To become something that is followed -- something that saves lives -- they have to be enforced.
"We believe the current leadership of the Department of Labor and MSHA will use these tools," Roberts said. "But who's to say what may happen under a future leadership?"
MSHA projected that its proposed changes would help avoid 150 mining injuries per year, at an estimated economic savings of $9.3 million annually. That's compared to estimated costs to the industry and the agency of $5.1 million per year.
Congress created the pattern-of-violations program in 1977, after finding that repeated citations and fines by federal inspectors weren't enough to improve safety performance and prevent a series of explosions that killed 23 miners and three inspectors at the Scotia Mine in Kentucky in March 1976.
Under the program, mines with a history of serious safety problems are kicked into a tougher enforcement bracket. Each time an additional serious citation is issued, that part of the mine is closed. Mines can have the pattern-of-violations designation lifted only if they go an entire quarterly inspection without a serious violation.
Even before Upper Big Branch, Main and other MSHA officials were complaining to Congress that mine operators were thwarting the process by appealing most of their serious violations, taking advantage of a 1990 MSHA rule that exempted citations that were under appeal from consideration in the process.
After the disaster, MSHA pushed this narrative by going public with claims that the agency was unable to put the Upper Big Branch Mine on a pattern-of-violations order because Massey Energy had aggressively appealed citations. A few days later, MSHA admitted that an agency "computer programming error" that missed eight final enforcement orders was actually to blame for its lack of action at Upper Big Branch.
In the more than 30 years since Congress created the POV program, MSHA has never successfully put a single mining operation on a pattern-of-violations status. Late last year, lawmakers in Congress declined to move forward with Obama administration-backed legislation for a more detailed overhaul of the POV statute.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.