Federal regulators proposed new safety rules this week that would result in speedier enforcement for mines that have shown a pattern of serious violations.
The proposal by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which calls for eliminating warning letters, comes in response to a deadly explosion last spring that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. It was the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970.
Federal investigators believe the blast was caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas mixing with coal dust, although Richmond-based Massey Energy Co. has disputed those findings.
Among other things, the proposed rules are intended to reduce delays caused by appeals that can last months or years. Public comments will be taken on the rules through April 4.
The United Mine Workers of America were among those who applauded the proposal.
“We have long wanted changes in the (pattern of violations) rules so that needless tragedies like the Upper Big Branch disaster of last April do not happen again,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said in a statement. “We believe that this rule will help us get there.”
Mine companies have been appealing more violations since new safety laws went into effect following the 2006 mine disaster in Sago, W.Va., that killed 12 workers. The increase has led to a backlog of more than 16,000 cases at the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.
No mine company has ever faced the stricter enforcement that comes with being identified as having a pattern of violations, although safety officials have had the power to do so for more than three decades.
MSHA says that in enacting the Mine Safety and Health Act in 1977 Congress included the pattern of violations (POV) provision in section to provide MSHA with an additional enforcement tool to protect miners when the operator demonstrated a disregard for the safety and health of miners.
“The need for such a provision was forcefully demonstrated during the investigation of the Scotia Mine disaster, which occurred in 1976 in eastern Kentucky (at Oven Fork in Letcher County),” MSHA says in its rule change proposal. “As a result of explosions on March 9 and 11, 1976, caused by dangerous accumulations of methane, 23 miners and three mine inspectors lost their lives. The Scotia Mine had a chronic history of persistent, serious violations that were cited over and over by MSHA. After abating the violations, the operator would permit the same violations to recur, repeatedly exposing miners to the same hazards. The accident investigation showed that MSHA’s then-existing enforcement program was unable to address the Scotia Mine’s history of recurring violations.”
Under the rule proposal, general criteria for what constitutes a pattern of violations would be posted online. Currently, federal law doesn’t specify what a pattern of violations is.
The rule proposal says the criteria would include compliance, accident, injury and illness records.
A searchable online database would also be created so mine operators could monitor whether they’re at risk of triggering the tougher regulations, said Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.
Main said the new rules would aim to spur mines to take a more proactive role addressing safety concerns before a pattern is established.
The rule proposal calls for allowing mitigating circumstances before determining whether there is a pattern of violations.
The proposal estimates that 50 mines would submit safety program proposals each year.
Federal officials estimate implementing the new rules would cost $4.2 million annually, with all but $900,000 of that coming from mine operators developing an MSHA- approved safety and health management program. However, federal officials estimate that implementing those safety programs would result in $9.3 million in savings that would come from having 150 fewer workers injured on the job.
Regulators would also screen mine operations at least twice a year — up from at least once — to determine whether a worrisome pattern has formed.
Online: Proposed Rule Change: http:// tinyurl.com/62yhb3w
Compiled from Mountain Eagle and Associated Press reports.