Backlog of Mine Operator Appeals of Safety Violations Undermines Worker Safety, Witnesses Tell House Committee

Feb 23, 2010 Issues: Labor, Worker Safety and Health

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A flood of mine owner appeals of health and safety violations are delaying tougher penalties for the country’s most dangerous mines and undermining efforts to protect miners, witnesses told the House Education and Labor Committee today. 

“MSHA’s stronger emphasis on safety is saving lives and reducing injuries,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of committee. “Some of the largest mining operations have responded by challenging tougher sanctions at a staggering rate. As a result, miners’ lives are in the crosshairs.”

When the Mine Safety and Health Administration cites a mine operator for a safety violation, the owners can challenge the violation to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that currently employs ten administrative law judges.

Mary Lu Jordan, the chair of the Review Commission, testified that the average time it takes to dispose of a case has increased over the last three years, from 178 days to 401 days this year.  There are currently approximately 16,000 cases at the Review Commission with at least $195 million in outstanding fines. In 2006, this backlog was only 2,100 cases.

According to data provided by the Review Commission, if current trends and funding for the agency remain the same, the backlog would dramatically increase to 47,000 cases by 2020.

Witnesses testified that the backlog of cases give incentives for mine operators to abuse this appeals process because it can delay steeper penalties for repeat violators.

“It is important that we remove the incentive for operators with significant and substantial safety violations at their mine to contest violations simply to delay enforcement,” said Joseph Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. “Delay in addressing [significant and substantial] hazardous conditions puts miners at risk, is at odds with the purpose of the Mine Act and mission of MSHA, and is unacceptable.”

Mine operators can be subject to progressively steeper fines or even shut down if cited for multiple serious health and safety violations. Today, mine operators are contesting two-thirds of all fines. Some of the largest mine owners who are challenging nearly every citation.

“The existing system rewards mine operators that file contests,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. “Having delay in the resolution of alleged violations diminishes MSHA’s ability to use the full panoply of its enforcement tools. You must also recognize that many of these violations are quite serious - the kind of violations that have contributed to mine fires, explosions and the deaths of coal miners.”

MSHA said that 48 mines that employ more than 6,000 miners could face tougher sanctions if not for delays at the review commission.

MSHA also noted that when mine operators were notified that they could face potential closures for additional violations and be subject to higher sanctions, those mines reduced future serious citations by 72 percent.  

Last year, Congress approved funding for an additional four judges at the review commission. In this year’s budget proposal the Obama administration requested four more. According to data provided by the review commission, 22 to 26 judges would be needed to significantly reduce the backlog of cases.

To read more about the hearing, click here.