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Some doubt fines aid mine safety

The federal MINER Act was prompted by the 2006 deaths of 12 miners in West Virginia.

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — A new federal rule allowing increased penalties for mine safety violations could be meaningless if inspectors feel they cannot impose them, skeptics say.

The changes, which take effect in late April, were required by the federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, a sweeping safety law passed last summer.

The MINER Act was prompted by the January 2006 deaths of 12 miners in West Virginia.

Penalties for all infractions will go up, with a maximum fine of $220,000 for flagrant violations that cause injury or death.

Mine operators would face fines of $5,000 to $60,000 if they fail to notify the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of deaths, injuries or trapped miners.

But Lee Ratliff, of Jemison, Ala., who was MSHA’s western district manager for metal/nonmetal mines until he retired two years ago, said inspectors are under pressure not to issue citations.

“If they write any kind of heavy paper (major citation), companies have a free rein to call (MSHA) and complain,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, such calls were made to MSHA headquarters while an inspector was still in the mine.

“It doesn’t take a fool to figure out ‘I’d better not write this citation or I’ll be in a bunch of trouble,’ ” said Ratliff.

However, MSHA director Richard Stickler said he intends to focus on enforcement.

“I have traveled nationwide since becoming the head of MSHA to meet our inspectors to make sure they know firsthand that I expect the mine safety laws to be enforced and complied with,” he said in a statement issued Friday.

Citations are frequently appealed, sometimes leading to reduced fines, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported for Sunday’s paper.

In a recent example cited by the paper, operators of the Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama were able to reduce $435,000 in fines assessed after a September 2001 explosion killed 13 miners to $3,000 four years later.

Reduced fines “have really killed the morale of inspectors,” said retired inspector Francis “Shorty” Wehr.

“(Inspectors) figure, ‘Why should I write it up? They are not going to penalize them for it.”’

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot says the agency collects about 85 percent of what it is owed.

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