"MSHA's current penalty structure is 25 years old and needs updating to strengthen incentives for compliance," said David Dye, acting MSHA administrator.

The mine safety agency has been receiving criticism since the Sago Mine tragedies in early 2006. A Feb. 9 USA Today article singled MSHA out for not levying the appropriate fines against coal operators, stating that the 2004 Super Bowl showing of Janet Jackson's breast levied a larger fine by the federal government $550,00 than it did for the 2001 deaths of 13 Alabama miners at the Jim Walter Resources Inc.'s No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala.. The initial fine of $435,000 against mine operator Jim Walter Resources was eventually cut down to $3,000.

How It Works

Under the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, monetary fines were mandated for all violations cited by government inspectors. Congress sets a limit on the maximum fines allowed.

Under current regulations for most fines, each mine safety violation is assigned points. The penalty structure, however, doesn't increase fines proportionately as the number of points increase. For example, 100 penalty points results in the current maximum $60,000 fine. But a mine with 50 penalty points is eligible for a fine of just $878. Only at 80 penalty points do fines go over $10,000.

President George W. Bush has asked Congress to raise the minimum penalty to $220,000, while West Virginia lawmakers have also introduced bills asking for higher penalty structure.

Lawmakers Speak Out

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said MSHA has the ability to levy larger fines, but chooses not to do so.

"MSHA's announcement regarding mine safety penalties is vague and ambiguous, and detracts from the real debate about how to ensure effective penalties," Byrd said. "MSHA has not been levying the current maximum penalty, as evidenced by the Sago Mine, where the operator was a habitual violator who never paid fines higher than $400."

There were 208 alleged violations of federal rules at the Sago Mine in the year before the accident there. The average citation was for $156, according to a congressional report released by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top democrat on the committee that oversees the committee on workplace safety. But he said he is pleased that his request submitted to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and MSHA to initiate the penalty rulemaking process is now in being executed. The work has only begun, he said.

"We will be watching this process closely to ensure that it is not just empty rhetoric intended to provide political cover," said Miller. "The administration should act quickly to create a system of penalties that will force mine owners to follow the law and keep workers safe; anything short of that will be inadequate."

MSHA Issues Training Grants

In other news, MSHA announced it would provide more than $800,000 in grants for mine safety and health training education for miners in 10 states.

The agency says the grant money will enable thousands of miners to become better prepared to deal with the conditions they encounter in their work. The grants were distributed in the following states:

  • Alaska: $42,974
  • Connecticut: $41,996
  • Rhode Island: $8,927
  • Florida: $155,134
  • Mississippi: $57,948
  • Nevada: $220,704
  • New Jersey: $47,527
  • Oklahoma: $97.646
  • Oregon: $98,945
  • South Carolina: $62,630

The awards are part of more than $7.9 million in grants MSHA began distributing in FY 2006. They cover training and retraining of miners working at surface and underground coal and metal and nonmetal mines. Some states use the grant money to develop videos, DVDs and other training materials, while others assist mine operators in producing training plans covering topics required under federal regulations.

In January, MSHA announced more than $4 million in grants to 20 states, including more than $500,000 to West Virginia to fund training for mine rescue team members, safety certificates for miners and MSHA's Comprehensive Mine Safety Program.