Federal regulators have implemented new measures for identifying the nation’s most dangerous mines, replacing what U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis had called a “badly broken” process.
The Mine Health and Safety Administration said this week the screening criteria give the agency more enforcement backbone at mines with a history of violating safety standards. The change is designed to identify mines that have been subject to closure orders, including those where compliance has not been sufficiently improved.
“We have known for some time that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed,” said MSHA director Joe Main. “This new screening process improves upon the old one, which cast too broad a net and did not distinguish mines with the highest levels of elevated enforcement.
“This new system will let MSHA focus its attention on those mines that are putting miners at greatest risk.”
The process fell under scrutiny following an April explosion that killed 29 at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, owner by Massey Energy. A computer error had allowed the mine to evade the screening process.
The Labor Department inspector general’s office had said that between 2007 and 2009, MSHA removed 21 mines from the screening process meant to flag those showing a “pattern of violations” of safety and health rules.
Both Solis’ office and congressional Democrats had slammed the screening process, developed in 2007, as a flawed product of the prior administration.
The new criteria use health and safety data from the most recent 12-month period available to determine if a potential pattern of violations exists. While it can’t correct issues that require legislation or changes to existing regulations, “this is a stopgap measure until reform can occur,” Main said.
“We are aggressively pursuing both regulatory and legislative reforms, but in the meantime this new policy improves our ability to identify problem mines.”