Federal regulators have placed 13 mines around the nation, including four underground coal mines in Kentucky, on notice that they must improve safety or face possible increased shutdowns.
One of the Kentucky mines got the highest number of temporary closure orders in the country in the year ending Oct. 31, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a news release.
MSHA announced Friday that it had notified the 13 mines that they have a potential pattern of significant violations of health and safety rules.
That requires the mines to reduce their number of significant violations of those rules.
If they don't, MSHA could designate them as having a pattern of violations.
That would bring increased enforcement, including forced shutdowns to fix safety problems.
No mine has ever been placed on pattern of violation status, but MSHA has moved to beef up that process in the wake of an April explosion that killed 29 miners at a West Virginia mine.
That mine, the Upper Big Branch operation owned by Massey Energy, met the criteria to be the 14th on the list of potential pattern violators, but MSHA postponed action on that because it is still investigating the deadly explosion, according to a news release.
The 13 mines are the first to be placed on notice as having a potential pattern of violations since the agency began trying to change the process.
Coal companies have been able to forestall being put on that status by contesting alleged violations, meaning it took longer to finalize them.
Coal operators argue they are merely following the rules in contesting citations.
MSHA has begun using different screening standards in recent months to try to push more mines toward potential pattern of violation status.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who has pushed for increased regulation of mine safety, said the notice to the 13 mines was a good move.
"I applaud MSHA's aggressive enforcement action today against 13 mine operators who have repeatedly violated federal safety requirements," said Miller, chair of the House committee with purview over mine regulations.
However, Miller said the move is merely a warning to improve.
Congress needs to make it easier for the agency to force changes at problem mines, Miller said.
MSHA said the four Kentucky mines on the list are Freedom Energy Mine No. 1 in Pike County, a Massey mine; Middle Fork Mining's KY No. 2 mine in Harlan County; the Bledsoe Coal Corp. Abner Branch Rider mine in Leslie County; and Left Fork Mining's Straight Creek No. 1 mine in Bell County.
The federal agency filed a lawsuit this month seeking a court order to close down the Freedom Energy mine.
It's the first time the agency has done that.
"Freedom does not appear to follow basic safety rules when MSHA is not at the mine," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis wrote in a document filed with the lawsuit. "If the court does not intervene, someone will be seriously injured or die."
A Massey spokesman said at the time that the company is committed to running its mines safely.
The Left Fork mine in Bell County is the one that received more orders to shut down than any of the 14,500 mines in the U.S. between Nov. 1, 2009, and Oct. 31, MSHA said.
Regulators issued 92 closure orders at the mine in that year, the agency said.
It was also among more than a dozen mines in seven states targeted for special inspections last month, the agency said.
Inspectors issued nearly 300 citations and orders during those visits.
The agency has done a series of such "impact inspections" over several months at mines that regulators believe have safety problems.
The Kentucky mines included in the October sweep were Left Fork Mining, Vision Coal, White Star Mining, Leeco and Patriot Coal.
At Left Fork's Straight Creek mine, inspectors took control of mine phones to keep employees above ground from warning miners underground that inspectors were on the way.
This year, a federal judge ordered officials at Left Fork's parent company, Manalapan Mining, not to warn miners underground that an inspection was under way.
MSHA has done 160 special inspections around the country since April, writing thousands of citations.
"One of the lessons we've learned is that business as usual won't change the behavior of mine operators who game the system and refuse to take seriously their responsibility for miners' safety and health," Main said in a news release.