Overdue step to protect miners; federal rule targets repeat violators

It's been too long coming, but at long last the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has unleashed itself to shut down coal operations that endanger workers' lives by repeatedly violating safety standards.

The pattern of violations rule that was finalized last week and takes effect in March finally makes good on a critical protection that Congress enacted after 26 Kentucky miners were killed by explosions at the Scotia Mine in Letcher County 37 years ago this spring.

The Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 handed MSHA an enforcement tool that the agency had never used until two years ago.

Had MSHA made better use of the 1977 law, the 12 miners who died at Sago in 2005 and the 29 lost at Upper Big Branch in 2010 would likely still be alive.

No telling how many other maimings and deaths could have been avoided had repeat violators faced a real threat of being shut down for violations.

Under the new rule, coal companies will still have access to due process and expedited temporary relief. But habitual offenders will no longer be able to escape being cited for a pattern of violations by bogging down the process with appeals.

Coal companies put miners at risk to increase production. Nothing will incentivize the industry to prioritize safety more than the threat of a shutdown order.

MSHA estimates that the final rule will prevent almost 1,800 injuries over 10 years.

While this is an important step in the right direction, Congress should still approve mine safety legislation that has been languishing for years and that, among other safeguards, would protect whistle blowers from industry retaliation.