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MSHA to Propose New ‘Pattern of Violations’ Rules for Closing Unsafe Mines « The Washington Independent

Quite aside from the questions about Massey Energy’s role in the recent blast that killed 29 miners in West Virginia has been the question of whether the Mine Safety and Health Administration had the power to close the mine based on its long history of safety violations.

And the answer, according to a number of mine-safety experts, is an emphatic yes.

Ken Hechler, the former West Virginia congressman who was lead sponsor of a 1969 law that overhauled mining safety, said this week that while most of the fault lies with Massey, his bill “clearly” authorized MSHA officials to close unsafe mines.

“This is a case not only of the operator thumbing his nose at the strictly legal requirements and regulations,” Hechler said in a phone interview. ”It also involves a failure of [MSHA] itself to act aggressively against the mine in order to ensure that either the conditions be made safe as provided in the law, or to toughen the enforcement … to close the mine.

“There is sufficient legal authority under the circumstances that we know are present in that mine — a highly gassy mine — [for MSHA to have closed it],” Hechler added.

Complicating the issue, Massey and other coal companies have launched a strategy in recent years of filing more and more protests against safety violations — a trend that’s created an enormous backlog of citations and prevented MSHA from establishing the “pattern of violations” required to shutter entire mines. Yet, according to some experts, MSHA could have closed that loophole on its own, but simply chose not to confront the coal companies over a reform they oppose.

“[MSHA] was soft-pedaling,” a former MSHA manager told TWI recently. “Staying in the background, keeping a low profile — and you can’t do that with this industry. You’ve got to use a big stick.”

There are signs that the administration has gotten the message. Not only has President Obama kept the story on the front pages — most recently with Sunday’s visit to commemorate the 29 miners killed in the blast — but the Department of Labor yesterday announced that it will propose new “pattern of violations” rules governing the closure of troubled mines. Critics of the current policy, though, might not be pleased about the timeline: The proposed rules are not scheduled for release until January 2011.

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