WASHINGTON - Since the Bush administration took office in 2001, it has been more lenient toward mining companies facing serious safety violations, issuing fewer and smaller major fines and collecting less than half of the money that violators owed, a Knight Ridder Newspapers investigation has found.
At one point last year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration fined a coal company a scant $440 for a "significant and substantial" violation that ended in the death of a Kentucky man. The firm, International Coal Group Inc., is the same company that owns the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 workers died earlier this week.
The $440 fine remains unpaid.
Relaxed mine safety enforcement is widespread, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of federal records and interviews with former and current federal safety officials, even though deaths and injuries from mining accidents have hovered near record low levels in the past few years.
The analysis shows:
- The number of major fines over $10,000 has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 2001. The dollar amount of those penalties, when adjusted for inflation, has plummeted 43 percent to a median of $27,584.
- Less than half of the fines levied between 2001 and 2003 - about $3 million - have been paid.
- The budget and staff for the enforcement office also have declined, forcing the agency to make do with about 100 fewer coal mine enforcement personnel.
- In serious criminal cases, the number of guilty pleas and convictions fell 54.8 percent since 2001. In the first four years of the Bush administration, the federal government has averaged 3.5 criminal convictions a year; in the four years before that the average was 7.75 per year.
Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor didn't respond by Friday evening to a list of 13 e-mail questions or to a request for an interview.
Davitt McAteer, who headed the mine safety agency during the Clinton administration, said it has become a "paper tiger."
"The numbers indicate that they haven't had as much in the area of enforcement," said McAteer, now a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University. "It suggests that the whole system is kind of bogging down."
McAteer said that without the stick of high fines, mandated payments of those penalties and consistent follow-up inspections, there's little incentive for companies to repair safety problems.
The mine safety agency touts on its Web site statistics showing the agency's "overall record of increased enforcement against mine operators during this Administration."
Those statistics show that in 2005, the agency issued 4 percent more violation notices for all mines than it did in 2000 and that the number of coal mine violations issued increased by 18 percent. The agency also touted a 13 percent increase in "significant and substantial" violations.
But those numbers hide the fact that most of those fines are so small that they're meaningless to big coal and mining companies, said Dennis O'Dell, a health and safety administrator for the United Mine Workers of America union.
"It's not enough to scare the companies to take care of business," O'Dell said. "A $55 fine for a coal company means nothing when they're making millions upon millions of dollars."
Earnie Williams, 65, was killed when a chunk of frozen coal slurry rocketed out of a clogged pipe, ricocheted and hit him in the head. The company, ICG, was faulted for not having procedures on how to unclog frozen pipes and was fined $440.
"The $440 fine charged to the company is a ridiculous figure to compare to someone's life or to deter the company from future unsafe practices," Williams' daughter, Karla Smith of Hindman, Ky., wrote in an e-mail to Knight Ridder. "How does anyone expect ICG to correct hazardous and potentially deadly practices when a pocket-change fine is issued after such an occurrence?"
At a diner in Stepptown, W.Va., retired miner Charles Crum said the rewards are too high and risks too low for mining companies to worry about safety rules.
"But if you're selling that coal for $67 a ton and the most you can be fined is $200, what are you going to do?" Crum said. "You're going ahead and mine that coal."
David Gooch, president of Coal Operators and Associates in Pikeville, Ky., which has 200 members, said the size of the fines have nothing to do with who's in power in Washington.
"It doesn't have anything to do with who's the president because, actually, the people who are doing those fines are apolitical," Gooch said. "They're employees that are covered by the federal civil service, and their own union, by the way, so they compute the fines the way they come out."
Mining industry officials defended the Bush administration and pointed to recent years of record low deaths and injuries in mining as the most important numbers.
For coal mining, 2005 and 2002 were record low years for fatalities. Only 22 people were killed last year in coal mining deaths - down from 47 in 1995. The number of workers killed in all mines hit consecutive record lows of 56 and 55 in 2003 and 2004, respectively, but increased slightly to 57 in 2005.
"Within the last five years the number of fatalities have been cut in half," said National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston. "From our perspective that's where we ought to be focused. It is what is happening to the absolute number of injuries - and the rate of injuries - that has gone down. Mining is no longer the most dangerous industry in the United States."
Regardless of who does the inspections, former agency officials say the marching orders on enforcement changed with the Bush administration.
"Right off the bat, when they came in they said we want to focus more on partnerships, alliances, working together with industry," said Celeste Montforton, who was special assistant to the MSHA chief for six years through December 2001. "They did feel there was too much of a focus on enforcement."
Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer who was a top MSHA official during the Clinton administration and later general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals, said there are problems with that philosophy.
"The philosophy is all coal operators are good guys and if you just tell them what to do, they'll be more than willing to do it and they'll do a good job," he said. "We know from history that's not true. Not all coal operators are good guys. There are some outlaws out there. And when you have an outlaw operator, you need to use your enforcement tools."
In 2001, the mine safety agency had 1,181 coal mine enforcement workers. This year, the agency had about 1,080 workers. And the president has proposed a further cut to 1,043 in the current fiscal budget.
Cutbacks in enforcement officials mean that specialists who could concentrate on the most pressing safety issues - ventilation and roof cave-ins - have been pressed into service for the routine and mandatory inspections, former officials say.
An even bigger worry, McAteer noted, is the lack of timely follow-up inspections. The problem was highlighted by a 2003 Government Accountability Office study that found that 48 percent of all citations - including the most serious ones - weren't followed up on by the mandated deadline.
"It is a very severe problem," McAteer said. "In human terms, if you don't follow that up, you can send all the enforcement people you want ... there's less incentive to fix" the problem.
Borenstein reported from Washington. Mueller of the Lexington Herald-Leader reported from Stepptown, W.Va. Johnson, also of the Herald-Leader, reported from Lexington, Ky.
© Copyright 2006 Knight Ridder