Administration sternly reminds mines to mind safety inspection rules

The Obama administration this week issued a stern warning to the mining industry: Alerting underground workers of imminent safety inspections is illegal — and will come with repercussions.

Yet the announcement — made by leaders of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) — is as much a nudge to federal inspectors to enforce the law as it is a warning to mine operators to follow it.

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Indeed, the move wasn't an unveiling of new rules — or even a strengthening of old ones — but merely a reminder to the companies and regulators alike that advance warning of inspections is prohibited (and has been for 33 years).

"Mining personnel who give advance notice are showing contempt for the law and for the safety and health of miners," Joseph A. Main, who heads MSHA, said in a statement. "They know how to fix problems when the MSHA inspector is on site, yet they ignore the rules and put miners at risk the rest of the time.

"It's not only illegal," Main said, "it's reprehensible."

The comments arrive on the heels of a similar MSHA notice to mine operators that altering ventilation plans without prior approval from the agency is prohibited. "These standards," Main said earlier in the month, "are not voluntary."

Both actions come in direct response to April's blast at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in southern West Virginia, which killed 29 miners and maimed a 30th. Since then, the owner of the operation, Virginia-based Massey Energy, has been under fire over charges that its leaders foster a corporate culture where profits take priority over worker safety.

Among the allegations, Massey miners — both former and current — have said the company habitually alerts its miners underground when safety inspectors arrive on site. The warning, in the form of a simple phone call, allows workers the time to fix any problems inside the mine before the inspectors arrive.

"They call and tell us to start hanging our [ventilation] curtains, start cleaning the coal dust up, start rock-dusting the ribs — get everything right because he’s on his way in there," Chuck Nelson, a former Massey miner, said in an interview from his West Virginia home earlier this year. "But as soon as [the inspectors] are on their way outside — before they get outside — these line curtains are jerked down again. They’re back to doing the same old business as usual.

"This happened every day that I worked with Massey,” said Nelson, now a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “I worked at six different Massey mines and every single one of ‘em operated the same way."

Such tales, in light of the UBB tragedy, have spurred MSHA to vow tougher enforcement of the advance notice prohibition. The agency this week highlighted a section of a 1977 mine safety law that lays out the punishment terms for offenders — a fine "of not more than $1,000" or imprisonment "for not more than six months."

Yet another provision, MSHA noted, allows inspectors to shutter mines that violate the advance warning ban. Under that section, regulators can seek a court injunction — temporary or permanent — against a mine company that "violates or fails or refuses to comply" with any part of the law.

The notice is intended for the eyes of "mine operators, miners' representatives and MSHA enforcement personnel," the agency noted.

The issue hasn't been overlooked on Capitol Hill, where the UBB disaster has prompted a Democratic push to strengthen the nation's mine safety laws this year. A House bill, introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), has already passed through the House Education and Labor Committee, which Miller heads.

Among its provisions, the proposal would make it a felony when mine operators warn their workers that inspectors are on site. Under current law, that offense is a misdemeanor.

The full House is expected to consider the proposal later in the year. Its road in the Senate, though, is much less certain.