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Judge Allows Unsafe Mine to Remain Open; MSHA Head Emphasizes Need for Reform

A Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission judge ruled yesterday that a mine with a history of safety violations could not be placed on a “pattern of violations” by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, leading the head of MSHA to condemn the ruling and call for reforms to the mine safety assessment system.

“Pattern of violations” status would have allowed Massey Energy’s Tiller No. 1 Mine in southwestern Virginia to be shut down, due to the safety hazards for workers. But as Joe Main of MSHA points out, even though the judge acknowledged the mine’s poor safety record, he ruled that it did not merit a pattern of violations. Here’s an excerpt of Main’s indignant statement on the ruling:

“The underground coal mine operation had contested 29 violations that would have formed the basis for issuance of a pattern notice. Judge Barbour agreed that the company committed all 29 violations, but he did not find a ‘pattern’ because he concluded that only 19 violations were significant and substantial. To place Tiller No.1 Mine on a pattern, 25 of those violations needed to be upheld as S&S.

“The citations disputed by Massey Energy involved hazardous roof or rib conditions, inadequate pre-shift examinations, inadequate ventilation, hazardous accumulations of combustible materials, hazardous electrical conditions and the use of non-permissible underground equipment – all serious violations that could ultimately lead to accidents and injuries.

“We believe that this case exemplifies the need for reforming the definition of S&S so that we can more easily prove in court that genuinely hazardous conditions are S&S. For example, attorneys for the Labor Department were unable to establish that the Tiller Mine’s use of non-permissible electrical equipment in the most gassy and dusty areas of the mine was S&S. Permissible electrical equipment is designed to prevent electrical sources from igniting methane, which can result in an explosion. MSHA believes that permissibility violations are obvious candidates for an S&S designation. While we are certainly disappointed in the judge’s ruling, it only underscores our unwavering resolve to fix the pattern of violations system.

“The pattern of violations system was designed to force persistent violators of safety rules to clean up their act. But under the current pattern of violations system, no mine has ever been successfully placed into pattern of violations status. As today’s ruling demonstrates, even mine operators with serious safety problems can evade pattern of violations status. The system is broken and we will fix it.”

h/t: Mike Lillis

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