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Virginia Massey Mine Put on Facing Rare ‘Pattern of Violations’ Status

If all the headlines surrounding the fatal mine blast in West Virginia last month did nothing else, they at least highlighted how reluctant federal regulators have been to apply the “pattern of violations” status to projects with troubling safety records. Indeed, since the power was granted in 1977, inspectors have invoked that status on only one occasion.

But the Mine Safety and Health Administration is looking to change that.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported this morning that a Massey-owned underground coal mine in southwest Virginia could face the rare pattern of violations status. The Tiller No. 1 Mine has racked up 82 safety violations this year, according to MSHA. Forty of those were deemed “significant and substantial,” indicating that they are “reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness.”

The rules go something like this: If MSHA inspectors find a recurring number of S&S violations, they issue a written warning to the mine operator. If, within 90 days, the operator “significantly reduces its violation frequency rate,” it can avoid the dreaded pattern of violations status, which would shutter the mine. That it’s happened so rarely is the failing of MSHA decision-makers, according to some mine safety experts, for not wanting to confront the powerful coal industry.

“This is for companies that just refuse to comply with the law,” Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky-base attorney, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “But the way MSHA has neutered it through this warning notice and through establishing these complex criteria is why it’s never used. Therefore you get mines like Upper Big Branch that … continue to place miners lives in jeopardy and be sanctioned in any way.”

The area of Virginia where the Tiller mine sits is represented by Rep. Rick Boucher, a 14-term Democrat who’s long-defended the coal industry on Capitol Hill. Boucher, who’s accepted more than $186,000 from the coal industry over his long career, has been among those coal-country lawmakers who’s remained silent on the issue of mine safety since the deadly West Virginia blast.

*Correction: This post initially stated that the “pattern of violations” was already in effect. In fact, the issue is currently before the courts. An MSHA spokeswoman told TWI, “This matter is currently tied up on court. So, no, the Tiller Mine is not on a pattern at this time.” We regret the error; we have a call in to MSHA for clarification and will continue to provide updates as the story progresses.

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