IG: Mine safety agency purposefully allowed dangerous mines to skip review

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) agreed, calling the findings "deeply troubling and unacceptable." He, too, is urging new legislation to ensure the safety of the nation's miners. 

Under current law, MSHA can shutter mines when inspectors can identify a "pattern of violations" (POV). In 2007, MSHA launched a program designed to identify operations with a history of disregarding federal safety standards, setting a course for putting those mines on POV status. But in March 2009, when the head of MSHA's coal division sent district managers the list of dangerous mines, it came with a qualifier: "Select no more than one mine on the initial screening list per field office and a maximum of 3 mines per district."

"We were told this guidance was necessary to address resource limitations," the OIG wrote this week. "However, this instruction set a limit that was inappropriate for this enforcement program."

The OIG was quick to add that a lack of resources is no excuse for allowing potentially deadly projects to stay running.  

"We are very concerned about mines removed for reasons other than appropriate consideration of the health and safety conditions at those mines," the agency wrote, adding a warning about the current status of those projects that eluded review. MSHA, OIG cautioned, "does not have evidence that they had reduced their rate of significant and substantial violations. As a result, miners may be subjected to increased safety risks."

Miller and Rockefeller both vowed to address the funding issues surrounding MSHA. Rockefeller said he will "insist on a full assessment of their resource gaps." 

"Agency resources should not be a factor when MSHA determines whether or not to take enforcement action to protect miners from safety violations," he said in a statement. 

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis also weighed in on the OIG report, calling the POV process "badly broken."

"It's clear that we need to scrap the current system and put a new system in place that is focused on protecting miners' safety and health," Solis said in a statement.

The agency is already moving toward that goal. Earlier this year, MSHA announced it would propose new rules for using its POV authority. Those guidelines are scheduled for release in January.