CRAIGSVILLE, W.Va. -- In its drive to foster a more cooperative relationship with mining companies, the Bush administration has decreased major fines for safety violations since 2001, and in nearly half the cases, it has not collected the fines, according to a data analysis by The New York Times.
Federal records also show that in the past two years the federal mine safety agency has failed to hand over any delinquent cases to the Treasury Department for further collection efforts, as is supposed to occur after 180 days.
With the deaths of 24 miners in accidents this year, the enforcement record of the Mine Safety and Health Administration has come under sharp scrutiny, and the Labor Department agency is likely to face tough questions about its performance at a Senate oversight hearing today.
"The Bush administration ushered in this desire to develop cooperative ties between regulators and the mining industry," said Tony Oppegard, a former top official at the agency. "Safety has certainly suffered as a result."
A spokesman for the agency, Dirk Fillpot, defended its record, pointing out that last year the coal industry had 22 fatalities, the lowest number in its history.
"Safety is definitely improving," Fillpot said.
A spokeswoman for the National Mining Association agreed:
"The agency realized in recent years that you can't browbeat operators into improved safety, and this general approach has worked," Carol Raulston said. "The tragic events of this year have given everyone pause. But I don't think it means we want to abandon what we have found works."
Records show that fatalities across all types of mining have stayed relatively stable. In each of the past three years, 55 to 57 miners have died in all areas of mining. Experts say a long-term decline in coal mine fatalities is in part a result of growing mechanization.
Fillpot also said delinquent cases had not moved from his agency to the Treasury Department since 2003 because of computer problems. He could not say when the problems would be corrected.
Although the agency has recently trumpeted congressional plans to raise the maximum penalties, federal records indicate that few major fines are issued at the maximum level. In 2004, the number of major fines issued at maximum level was one in 10, down from one in five in 2003.
Since 2001, the median penalties that exceed $10,000, described as "major fines," have dropped 13 percent, to $21,800 from $25,000.
Also troubling, critics say, is that fines are regularly reduced in negotiations between mine operators and the agency. From 2001 to 2003, more than two-thirds of all major fines were cut from the original amount that the agency proposed. Most of the more recent cases are enmeshed in appeals, so it is impossible to know whether that trend has continued.
"The agency keeps talking about issuing more fines, but it doesn't matter much," said Bruce Dial, a former inspector for the mine safety agency. "The number of citations means nothing when the citations are small, negotiable and most often uncollected."
Before the January disaster at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners died, the operator had been cited 273 times since 2004. None of the fines exceeded $460.
At a House oversight hearing yesterday, agency officials repeatedly cited the frequency of fines against Sago in the year before the accident as proof of aggressive enforcement. Exasperated, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, replied that maybe those fines had little effect because many were for $60. That point set off applause from several audience members.
"Most fines are so small that they are seen not as deterrents but as the cost of doing business," said Wes Addington, a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg, Ky., which handles mine safety cases. Using federal records, Addington released a study in January indicating that since 1995 nearly a third of the active underground mines in Kentucky had failed to pay their fines.
"Operators know that it's cheaper to pay the fine than to fix the problem," he said. "But they also know the cheapest of all routes is to not pay at all. It's pretty galling."
Larry Williams knows this frustration well. In 2002, he was working with Gary Martin in a deep mine near Rupert when the roof collapsed on them. Martin died instantly; Williams was trapped for more than four hours under several thousand pounds of rock that crushed his pelvis and both legs.
The men had been pillaring, or second mining, which involves extracting the last remaining coal in tunnels by scraping it from the coal pillars used to hold up the roof. This method is considered extremely dangerous. Federal regulations aim to reduce the risk.
In this case, federal investigators found that the regulations were not followed. The operators were fined $165,000. Those fines have not been paid, even though the mine owner, who did not reply to requests for comment, remains in business, state records show.
"It makes me mad," said Williams, 50, who is paralyzed through much of his right side. "One dead and another man's life ruined, and they pay nothing? It just doesn't make sense."
On Feb. 14, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a measure to raise the maximum penalty that the mine safety agency can assess for failing to eliminate violations that cause death or serious injury, to $500,000, from the current $60,000.
The law would also prohibit administrative law judges from reducing fines for violations deemed flagrant or habitual.
Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said although the law was a positive step, one regulation that continues to need attention allows fines to be lowered for smaller or financially troubled mines.
"The result of that provision is that it helps keep some habitual offenders in business," she said.