CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Coal operators whose mines repeatedly violate safety and health standards could more easily be hit with tougher enforcement actions under a new rule being finalized by the Obama administration.
U.S. Department of Labor officials released the final version of their long-awaited updated rules aimed at reforming the controversial "pattern of violations," or "POV," program at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The rules stop mine operators from using appeals of safety citations to avoid tougher enforcement and do away with MSHA warning letters that give companies additional time to improve before facing tougher enforcement.
MSHA announced the final rules on the same day that a federal judge in West Virginia sentenced the former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch Mine. Prior to the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, Upper Big Branch had avoided being classified as a pattern violator by appealing hundreds of violations -- and because of MSHA inaction the agency later called a computer programming error.
"We think that this final rule will help prevent another tragedy such as occurred at the Upper Big Branch Mine," MSHA chief Joe Main told reporters during a news-conference call.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the rule closes key loopholes that "some mine operators exploited to the detriment of workers' lives and limbs." Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called the rule "a substantial step forward that will help us address the problems at our most dangerous mines before disaster strikes."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called MSHA's final rule "an important step forward for improving safety in mines across West Virginia and the country" and said he would continue to push for his "comprehensive mine safety bill" in Congress.
The National Mining Association criticized the final rule, saying it would deprive mine operators of "due process" by allowing MSHA citations that are under appeal to be counted as part of a violation pattern.
Federal Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said completing the rule has been among her agency's highest priorities. However, it's taken nearly two years -- MSHA proposed the rule in February 2011 -- for Obama administration officials to finalize their changes.