Among MSHA's priorities has been to begin using the pattern of violations (POV) authority against mine operators that repeatedly violate the law, and to toughen the federal regulations that implement that authority.
In November and December, MSHA had warned 13 mine operators that they faced POV orders if they didn't improve their safety performance. Operators temporarily idled two of those mines and closed a third.
Eight of the remaining 10 mines improved the share of violations that were rated as serious by 39 percent to 97 percent, reaching goals set by MSHA for avoiding a POV order.
But the serious violation rate at Apache worsened by 6 percent and the rate at Abner Branch worsened by 5 percent, MSHA said. "I was highly disappointed when I saw the stats on these mines," Main said.
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.
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 orders was actually to blame for its lack of action at Upper Big Branch.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.