CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators have targeted two coal-mine operators with tougher enforcement after serious safety violations became more frequent, despite a warning last year that the mines needed to improve.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials formally issued "pattern of violations" notices to The New West Virginia Mining Co.'s Apache Mine in McDowell County and Bledsoe Coal Corp.'s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Leslie County, Ky.
The move means working sections of the mines will face closure orders for each additional serious violation.
Inspectors won't lift those closure orders until the violations that prompted them are fixed, and the mines won't be removed from this "pattern of violations" tract until they undergo a complete inspection without a serious violation.
"We're trying to send a message to the mining industry that you do not want to go down this path," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA. "We're going to change the culture of those who want to flout the law."
But Main said that one of the two operations, the Apache Mine, has already closed, at least temporarily. MSHA records indicated the mine hasn't produced coal since late January.
MSHA billed Tuesday's announcement as an "unprecedented enforcement action" and the first time in the history of the federal mine safety law that the agency has used its "pattern of violations" authority. But MSHA has tried to use the authority at least twice before, only to be forced to back down when citations used to establish a pattern were shot down on appeal.
The Obama administration has been scrambling to step up its mine safety enforcement in the last year, following the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.