January 31, 2011
MSHA proposes to beef up 'pattern-of-violations' rules

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration moved forward with a major toughening of its rules to crack down on coal companies that repeatedly violate standards meant to protect the health and safety of the nation's coal miners.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials proposed the first changes in nearly 20 years to agency regulations that govern its "pattern-of-violations" enforcement process that's been under increasing scrutiny since the April 5, 2010, Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

The rules would stop mine operators from using appeals of safety citations to avoid tougher enforcement, do away with MSHA warning letters that give companies an additional chance to improve, and require regulators to more frequently check mine safety records looking for scofflaws.

"We're trying to craft a rule here that has the industry constantly monitoring its health and safety performance so they don't reach the point of a pattern-of-violations order," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA.

But the main tool for operators to do that monitoring -- an online MSHA database that specifically tracks the enforcement actions used to determine a pattern of violations -- is yet to be designed and is not mandated or even described in the rule proposed by the agency.

And it's not clear from the MSHA proposal how the new administrative rules would be enforced in relation to separate legal authority agency officials have resurrected for taking mine operators to federal court when they repeatedly violate safety and health standards.

Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the industry had a variety of questions about the proposal that MSHA was not able to answer during a private phone call with stakeholders.

Raulston said mine operators are especially concerned about changes allowing MSHA to consider violations that are still under appeal in determining a company should receive a POV order, and about eliminating the warning notice in favor of the computer tracking system.

The United Mine Workers issued a statement in strong support of the MSHA proposal, but also cautioned that details need to be carefully included in the rule so they ensure consistent enforcement under varying political administrations.

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