On the heels of the April 5, 2010, disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the US House Committee on Education and Labor, released a list of 48 coal, metals, and nonmetals mines in 21 states (including Upper Big Branch) that have had many significant, habitual violations of safety rules.
The mines are also linked by the fact that most, if not all, of their owners have been legally delaying action on the violations through appeals of the citations. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is faced with a backlog of approximately 16,000 appeals by these and other mine owners, Miller says, as appeals have soared after mine safety reforms were imposed following several mine disasters in 2005 and 2006. The backlog of cases was 2,100 in 2006. Mine owners have now tripled the number of cases they appeal, and they are litigating 67% of all penalties assessed, according to the Committee.
One result of this backlog is that the agency has been unable to take the type of actions at the 48 mines — including mine closure if an owner doesn't adequately correct violations — that might have prevented the 29 Upper Big Branch deaths, and might prevent similar future disasters. MSHA added to its troubles by failing to catch a computer error that left Upper Big Branch off the hook in one critical step of the process involving sanctions of habitual violators.
- Committee Press Release, Apr. 14, 2010: "Chair Miller Releases List of Dangerous Mines Escaping Tighter Scrutiny."
As detailed in the press release, the coal mines are in AZ, IL, KS, KY, UT, VA, WV, and WY. The metals and nonmetals mines are in AL, AR, CA, FL, ID, MO, MT, NV, NY, PA, SC, TX, and WA.
Stories about the mines can focus on previous violations, the government's inability to handle the backlog, company and employee comments on the violations and the appeals process, and legislative and regulatory changes being considered to help resolve problems.
- On Feb. 23, 2010, the Committee held a hearing on the huge number of appeals: "Reducing the Growing Backlog of Contested Mine Safety Cases."
- The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, based in Washington, D.C. and Denver, is an independent agency that handles many related legal actions such as those involving appeals of violations and their associated penalties. FMSHRC.
The agency provides some details about the recent surge in its caseload in its Performance and Accountability Report for fiscal year 2009.
- Many related issues are discussed in an April 20, 2010, article by the advocacy group OMB Watch: "What's Next for Coal Mine Safety?"