Congress to look into mining safety

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Apr 8, 2010

Congress to look into mining safety

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Apr 8, 2010


Bob Moon: President Obama wants a report from mine-safety officials next week on steps to prevent a repeat of the deadly explosion that left at least 25 miners dead in West Virginia.

Rescuers at the Upper Big Branch mine ran into dangerous gas today. They had to suspend efforts to reach four others who might have survived. It’s hoped they made it to a sealed chamber.

Meantime, Congress is planning hearings. Specifically, lawmakers want to know whether mine operators are purposely dragging out disputes over safety citations. Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: Congress tightened safety regulations at mines and increased penalties in 2006. Before the tougher penalties, mine operators contested one in three fines. Now, they appeal two-thirds.

CELESTE MONFORTON: This is a strategy that some in the coal industry are using to delay enforcement.

Celeste Monforton teaches public health and worker safety at George Washington University. She says mine owners are clogging the appeals system to put off harsher fines. Mine operators say the problem is that mines with lots of safety citations can be labeled repeat offenders. That leads to higher fines, or even closure.

CAROL RAULSTON: It’s kind of one of these financial incentives that’s working in a little bit of a perverse way.

Carol Raulston is a National Mining Association spokeswoman. She says mine owners are appealing a lot because they want to avoid that repeat offender label.

RAULSTON: You have a little bit of a financial responsibility to challenge that because the next time you do have an infraction, then there’s this multiplier effect.

Raulston says, if there is a safety violation, mines have to fix it while they contest the fine.

But United Mine Workers Spokesman Phil Smith says usually mines keep operating with just quick fixes.

PHIL SMITH: We’re not talking about issues with, you know, your tools are in the wrong place. We’re talking about stuff like methane buildup, improper ventilation controls.

When methane gas builds up in a mine, it can cause massive explosions, like the one Monday at the Upper Big Branch mine.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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