Mines with violations escape scrutiny because of backlog

Some coal mines with higher rates of alleged safety violations have not made the list for increased scrutiny by regulators because of a backlog of appeals, a congressman said Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, released a list of more than 30 such mines.

They included the facility in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed April 5, as well as four in Kentucky.

Under federal law, regulators can warn mine operators that they may be cited for having a pattern of violations. Among other things, a mine must have a violation rate significantly higher than the industry average to trigger that notice.

Once a company gets that notice, it must reduce future significant violations or face sanctions such as being closed down.

The list Miller released named mines that would have gotten such a notice in October 2009, but didn't because they were contesting citations.

Such contests are a legitimate part of the process. But some safety advocates charge that mine operators are contesting too many citations to kick against tougher safety rules adopted after 2006 mine disasters.

"Mine operators who game the system to avoid tough scrutiny by federal safety officials must be held accountable," Miller said in a statement.

The coal industry, however, has argued inexperience and inconsistency on the part of regulators led to the backlog.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a statement that it will step up scrutiny of any mine when that is warranted.

"For any mine that MSHA thinks has increased hazards, there will be increased enforcement," the agency said.

The Kentucky mines Miller identified are operated by Clean Energy Mining Company in Pike County; CAM Mining LLC in Pike County; Viper Coal LLC in Knott County, which is listed as non-producing; and Highland Mining Company LLC in Union County.

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