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 mine owner Massey Energy Co. 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. Main said he believes MSHA's computer programming and other systems have been improved to avoid a repeat of what happened with the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Until 2011, in the more than 30 years since Congress created the POV program, MSHA had never successfully put a single mining operation on a pattern-of-violation status.
On Thursday, Main declined to say if future mine safety legislation should include further changes in the pattern-of-violation language now that MSHA has finalized its new rule.
"We believe we have crafted a rule that will better protect the nation's miners," Main said. "Whether or not Congress decides to take another look at that is another question."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.