Saturday, March 5, 2011

House Holds Hearing On Mine Safety

Especially when there was a large public debate surrounding the Wise County Coal Plant, there’s been a lot of discussion in Virginia and other states in the region about the environmental impacts of coal mining. While these discussions have raised some very important issues, they often overlooked some of the crucial information about the health and safety of people working in the mines. In light of the explosion that killed 29 people at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April of 2010, however, there has been an increased amount of attention giving to safety issues.

Part of the increased attention on these issues came in the form of Joseph Main, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, testifying at a hearing held by the House subcommittee on Workforce Protections on Thursday. The focus of the hearing was for Members of Congress to receive an update on the “several regulatory and policy changes aimed at improving mine safety” that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has implemented over the last six months.

While there are inspectors MSHA uses to help make sure mines meet safety standards, Secretary Main and several Members of Congress highlighted how we must also depend on miners to come forward when they see unsafe conditions in the mines. The culture that’s been in place at some mines, however, creates an environment that causes miners to avoid coming forward because they fear being fired or facing some other type of retribution. Everyone admits that the whistleblower protections that are currently have done some good, but this fear of retribution shows how there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done in challenging a work environment that discourages standing up for safety.

It’s not only whistleblower protections that are needed, however, as there was also some discussion about how some mine operators go beyond simply creating an atmosphere that intimidates whistleblowers. During the inspection process, for instance, some operators of some sites actually ask their employees to help prevent inspectors from noticing some of the conditions that might not meet standards. Rep. Lynn Woosley pointed out that this process was started when “staff radioed miners underground to warn” about the presence of inspectors. Since the tactics used by the inspectors were relatively well known to operators and miners, the folks in the mine could use this advance notice to “correct the condition or direct the inspector’s attention away from deficiencies.”

MSHA realizes that something had to change in order to prevent these practices from continuing and Secretary Main reported that they have begun conducting “impact inspections in a way that has shaken up even the most recalcitrant operators.” Just as an example of what they’ve done, many of the inspections now take place during off hours when the mine operators likely don’t expect inspectors to show up. Furthermore, there are many cases in which they’ve “taken hold of the mines’ phone lines upon arrival” and “gone into those mines in force, with sufficient personnel to cover the key parts of the mine quickly before hazards can be hidden or covered up.” As a result of these impact inspections, there have been “more than 4,100 citations and 380 orders for violations of mine safety and health laws, rules and regulations” issued. This is important because it shows that there methods are working and are doing something to help make the mines safer for workers.

The news of an increased number of citations is good news for mine safety, but several people pointed out that there are still some companies that try to game the system because there is such a backlog of citations. Rep. George Miller, for instance, highlighted how there is an 80,000 citation backlog and it often takes 824 days to take a citation to final order. Realizing that this is a problem with the system, some operators are contesting citations in order to prolong the process and buy time and save money while waiting for their file to make it to the top of the pile.

Secretary Main said his department realizes this is a problem and is committed to taking action against those mines that are consistently failing to meet safety standards. As the Secretary pointed out in his testimony, a prime example of this can be seen in “MSHA’s decision –for the first time since the passage of the Mine Act -- to seek a federal court injunction under the Mine Act’s pattern of violation junction section.” This action was taken against Massey Energy’s mine in Pike County, Kentucky, which had accumulated 1,952 citations between July 2008 and June 2010 for “improper ventilation, failure to support the mine roof, failure to clean up combustible materials, failure to maintain electrical equipment,” and other violations. Despite the fact that the mine did end up shutting down, Main admits that the “pattern of violations, or POV process, is broken.” As a result, MSHA is encouraging changes in the process such as allowing the department to go after mines that clearly show a pattern of violations even if all of the citations haven’t made their way to final order.

In the end, everyone participating in the hearing tended to agree that there needs to be action taken to protect the workers who are going into the mines every day. While the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine has brought some attention to mining safety, we simply cannot wait until there’s another explosion to realize that we’re not doing everything possible to protect our workers. As we move forward, it will therefore be very interesting to see what regulations are put into place to help fix the pattern of violations process and ensure that mining companies are no longer able to avoid meeting safety standards by gaming the system.

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