Coal Tattoo

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., has secured an additional $22 million to help clear up the huge backlog of appealed enforcement cases pending at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

In a statement announcing the move, Sen. Byrd had this to say:

Last month, a horrific explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners. We are learning that this was a disaster that should never have happened. That mine had been cited for hundreds of safety violations – citations that were appealed and ignored, and I dare say, were scoffed and laughed at by the guilty parties.

We must reduce the backlog of contested safety violations. Simply put, penalties must be paid, violations must be corrected, and the violators must be punished.

Last year, alone, the Upper Big Branch Mine contested 67 percent of the penalties assessed for violations cited by MSHA inspectors. That’s similar to the national appeal rate of 66 percent cited by MSHA chief Joe Main during testimony earlier this year to Congress (see video above). Corporate-wide, though, Massey’s appeals rate was about 74 percent of its total penalties. And all of those numbers are far, far above the 29 percent of penalties that were appealed by the mining industry only five years ago.

And don’t forget that Massey’s lawyers had worked out a special deal with MSHA to allow the company to appeal violations and fines even after the legal deadline for doing so had passed.

In the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, MSHA officials initially said they had not taken tougher enforcement action — such as a pattern of violations order — at the mine because its appeals had kept the mine from meeting the agency’s guidelines for such action.  But agency officials later backed off that, revealing that a computer glitch was to blame.

And while clearing up the appeals backlog is something everybody seems to agree is a good idea, it’s also important to remember that doing that is not a quick fix for the nation’s mine safety problems. Sen. Byrd and other coalfield legislators are looking at other legislative reforms, so stay tuned …