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Union Says New Mine Fines Fail to Address ‘Laxâ€TM Enforcement

by Brendan Coyne

Sept. 11, 2006 – Nine months after the deaths of twelve workers at West Virginia’s Sago Mine generated national interest in coal mining accidents, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is ready to alter its rules for safety violations.

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As proposed, the rules would satisfy requirements imposed on MSHA by the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006. But the law, which was signed by President Bush in June, has been criticized by worker safety advocates as falling short on enforcement, making the MSHA rules equally lenient.

Under the rules, MSHA would increase the maximum fine amount for the most serious and flagrant health and safety violations from the current $60,000 to $220,000. The proposed rules would also eliminate the current $60 penalty for "non-serious violations that are corrected in a timely manner" and raise penalties for all types of violations. For most common but severe violations, the top-dollar fine will remain $60,000.

In its Federal Register notice last week, MSHA said it anticipates that the average penalty per individual mine will increase from $213 to $587 if the rate of violations does not improve.

Both the mine workers union and the mine industry’s lobby expressed disappointment with the new rules last week. United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) representative Tom Wilson told the Tuscaloosa News that the new rules fail to address "lax enforcement issues" at MSHA.

Wilson’s counterpart at the National Mining Association told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that in proposing the higher fines, MSHA "mistakenly believes that this will bring a corresponding improvement in safety" and suggested that the agency re-allocate "inspection resources to high-risk areas."

The rules are open to public comment before they are finalized. Along with publishing the proposed changes, MSHA announced six public hearings beginning September 26 and ending October 19. The agency will also accept written comments through October 23.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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