MAC: Mines and Communities

Fines May Not Bring Compliance

Published by MAC on 2006-02-10

Fines may not bring compliance

by Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

10th February 2006

Late in 2004, a federal inspector found trouble inside West Virginia's Sago Mine.

Levels of black-lung-causing coal dust were nearly 25% above the legal limit. Miners were "reasonably likely" to become permanently disabled, the inspector noted in a report that also cited the mine operator for moderate negligence.

The fine: $268.

The conditions that day aren't related to the disaster that killed 12 Sago miners last month, but the fine reflects what some former officials say is a system that makes safety violations trivially cheap.

"It's like fining you or me 25 cents for a speeding violation," says Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety adviser in the Clinton administration.
The $268 fine is equal to the price of 4 or 5 tons of coal.

"You can mine 4 tons of coal in a couple of minutes," Oppegard says. "It's cheaper to exceed the dust limits, expose a miner to black lung and pay the fine than it is to do the right thing."

The fine was calculated using a complicated formula that makes large penalties rare. The Labor Department has urged that tougher mining fines should be implemented. Such efforts have fallen short, says Steven Webber, who oversaw mining penalties for the federal government from 1999 to 2003.

"The fines are low, no question about it," Webber says. In 1976, after a Kentucky mine disaster killed 23 miners and three inspectors, a Senate report criticized fines as "generally too low" to encourage safety-law compliance.

When Congress rewrote mine-safety laws in 1977, fines barely changed. Lawmakers toughened coal mine inspections and required rescue teams at the mines.

The maximum fine stayed at $10,000 until 1993 when Congress raised it to $50,000. It's risen to $60,000 in recent years to account for inflation.

Maximum fines have been imposed in just 12 violations in the last five years, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records. In the Clinton administration's last six years, maximum fines were levied following 72 violations, agency records show.

Mine-safety violations are measured on a 100-point scale. Negligence, potential harm, a mine's size and an operator's safety record are rated and added up. The more points, the higher the fine.

But as Congress has increased the fine for 100-point violations by $50,000, the mine-safety agency has made only minor changes to lesser penalties.

Most violations get 20 to 50 points. Fines for those violations have risen only 82% since 1993, when fines were first increased. That's far less than the 600% increase in maximum fines in the same period.

David Dye, the department's acting mine-safety chief, downplayed the significance of fines when he testified last month before a Senate panel reviewing mine safety. Closing part of a mine until violations are corrected is "even more powerful than citations," Dye said, because it can cost up to $150,000 per shift in lost coal production.

"That is a way that you can get the attention of an operator very quickly," Dye said. In 2005, his agency closed parts of the Sago Mine 18 times and fined it $25,817 for 198 safety violations, 95 of them serious.

Oppegard, the former mine-safety adviser, says closures aren't enough.

"There has to be enough of a fine to encourage compliance with the law," Oppegard says.

Webber, the former assessment chief, some inspectors "lowball" violations by underrating factors such as negligence or the number of miners potentially harmed. The more miners exposed to danger, the higher the fine.

A 2003 internal review by the mine-safety agency found that only 16% of violations in 2000-01 said more than one miner was exposed to hazardous conditions.

"That's extremely low and inappropriate," Oppegard says. "Most unsafe conditions in a mine would affect more than one person."

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