Big Coal's Big Safety Loophole and Its Worst Offenders

Last Updated Apr 15, 2010 3:25 PM EDT

The whole point of Congress passing tougher safety laws back in 2006 was to make mines a less dangerous place to work. What they got was closer to FUBAR. Mine operators facing stricter enforcement and steeper penalties tripled the number of appeals they made to the growing pile of citations. Which has created two problems: a backlog of cases that skyrocketed from 2,100 in 2006 to 16,000 today, and a loophole that allows mines with multiple violations to keep operating.

Safety officials warned lawmakers back in February that 48 coal and metal mines, which went unnamed at the time, would be subject to a "pattern of violation" standard and could risk closure and heavy fines. But, their hands were tied because of the appeals process. Among those 48 mines on the naughty list was the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by Massey Energy (MEE), where an explosion earlier this month killed 29 workers.

Here's how the loophole works. Federal safety officials can label a mine as one with a "pattern of violations." Once that occurs a mine must take action or the government can shut it down or heavily fine the operator. But officials can't take any of those steps if the mine operator files an appeal. Which means, mine operators can keep filing appeals as the violations stack up.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., released the list of 48 mines yesterday -- "in the name of deep public interest" -- that ordinarily would have received "pattern of violation sanctions" notices last October. Those notices never went out, of course, because the large number of contested citations, which caused a backlog of appeals. Among those, 32 are coal mines. And the vast majority of them are in West Virginia.

  • Six of those mines are owned by Massey Energy;
  • Four mines are owned by Patriot Coal (PCX), including the American Eagle Mine in West Virginia; the Highland 9 Mine in Kentucky; Winchester Mine if West Virginia; and Big Mountain No. 16 in West Virginia;
  • More than 3,600 people work in the 32 coal mines on the list.
Below is a list, in order, of the five mines with the highest percentage of contested violations:
  • Elkville No. 1 in Illinois is operated by S Coal Co., and owned by Geraldine P. Turner. Contested violation rate: 72.53%
  • Deep Mine No. 8 in West Virginia is operated by Argus Energy and owned by James H. Booth. Contested violation rate: 67.09%
  • Copley Trace Surface Mine in West Virginia is operated by Argus Energy and owned by James H. Booth. Contested violation rate: 67.09%
  • Allegiance Mine in West Virginia is operated by Independence Coal and owned by Massey Energy. Contested violation rate: 55.54%
  • Liberty Processing in West Virginia is operated by Independence Coal and owned by Massey Energy. Contested violation rate: 55.54%
Photo of coal miner from Flickr user fakeelvis, CC 2.0 See additional BNET Energy coverage of Massey Energy and coal mining: