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A federal judge has determined that the widows of two men who died in a mine fire in West Virginia five years ago cannot hold federal mine inspectors responsible for the deaths.

The ruling comes in spite of an internal review that found the inspectors culpable.

From NPR:

U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver accepted that “stinging assessment,” as he called it, but still dismissed the lawsuit Bragg and Hatfield filed against MSHA officials.

Copenhaver said he couldn’t “impose a legal duty” on MSHA and its inspectors and managers because that “would directly conflict with Congress’ decision to place the primary responsibility for mine safety on mine operators.”

 

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Last year, Labor Department declared Massey Energy’s Freedom Mine #1 in eastern Kentucky so dangerous that it required federal supervision. Massey challenged that ruling, but a settlement has now been reached.

From NPR:

Massey Energy denies “the existence of any pattern of violations” but agrees that a U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over Freedom and can apply sanctions, including contempt of court citations, if the company fails to follow a prescribed safety plan.

As NPR reports, the Labor Department’s closure of the mine was unprecedented, as is this settlement.

When the GOP takes over control of the House next year, the Education and Labor Committee will be led by John Kline (R-MN). Kline supported tougher mine safety regulations in 2006, but has lately been at odds with outgoing chair George Miller (D-CA), who will remain on the committee.

Mine safety is not always a partisan issue, but government regulation almost always is. And it’s unclear how Kline may handle proposed updates to mine safety laws in the wake of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

The Courier-Journal sums up the concerns many safety advocates have as Kline prepares for his new role.

And since his 2006 vote on mine safety, he has been less friendly to follow-up efforts by Miller and others to further change the laws.

Kline opposed a 2008 mine-safety bill and earlier this year labeled called Miller’s latest measure “ill-advised” and “a much more expansive approach” than was necessary.

In a column in The Washington Times, he advocated “restrained federal involvement” in workplace issues.

 

Massey Energy’s recent attempt to overturn a Labor Department ruling (and essentially gut a powerful and previously unused government mine safety tool) has been rejected. NPR has details.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a batch of citations Friday. Thirteen mines were cited for safety violations, but one mine has been the most consistently cited. That mine is in Kentucky.

From the Herald-Leader:

The most problematic of the nation’s 14,500 mines in the past year has been Left Fork Mining Co.’s Straight Creek No. 1 Mine in Bell County, Ky. MSHA has ordered it to close 92 times between Nov. 1, 2009, and Oct. 31, 2010.

Inspectors seem to have hope that citations can curb violations.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned is that business as usual won’t change the behavior of mine operators who game the system and refuse to take seriously their responsibility for miners’ safety and health,” said agency chief Joe Main. “This has been a wake-up call for even the most resistant mine operators.”

 

Massey Energy owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in April. Transocean owns the oil rig that blew up earlier this year, killing 11 workers and causing an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Aside from recent disasters, what do these companies have in common? Government safety awards.

From the Washington Post:

Worker safety advocates say the awards – given, in some instances, to companies involved in disasters – show the dangers posed when federal agencies become too cozy with the industries they regulate.

[edit]

“This allows companies to promote themselves a certain way. Shareholders and employees are told: ‘The government thinks we are safe,’ ” said Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and assistant research professor in occupational health at George Washington University. “It can potentially be used as a shield against criticism when problems arise.”

Which is what happened after the Upper Big Branch mine exploded this spring. Within days, the MSHA released an 11-page report it wrote for President Obama detailing Massey’s safety record that characterized it as “troublesome.”

Massey immediately pointed to the three Sentinels of Safety awards it won six months earlier from the MSHA and the National Mining Association. It was the most a mining company had received in a single year from the awards program, which dates to Herbert Hoover’s administration.

(h/t Rural Blog)

Massey Energy employees are reportedly not showing up for their scheduled closed-door interviews with MSHA to discuss the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. The meetings are voluntary, but the Charleston Gazette reports that about half of the Massey employees slated to meet with inspectors haven’t.

MSHA has the ability to subpoena workers for some meetings, but officials say they want to use subpoenas as a last resort.

(via)

NPR is reporting that the Mine Safety and Health Administration is one subject of a federal criminal investigation into the West Virginia mining disaster.

Sources familiar with the investigation say the FBI is looking into possible bribery of employees of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that inspects and regulates mining. The sources say FBI agents are also exploring potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.

Massey has been cited repeatedly for violations of federal safety regulations and unsubstantiated rumors have circulated for years that mine inspectors and other officials receive payoffs. The FBI declines comment and neither confirms nor denies that an investigation is ongoing.

In a statement to NPR, Massey Energy says it is not aware of the allegations, and is fully cooperating with any investigations taking place. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has yet to respond to a request for comment.

We’ve talked about what Joseph Main’s position at the head of MSHA could mean for mine safety, and now we’ll find out. From the AP:

The Senate has confirmed former United Mine Workers union official Joseph Main to head the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The chamber confirmed Main by unanimous consent on Wednesday evening to run the agency responsible for overseeing the health and safety of the nation’s 392,000 miners.

Main spent 22 years heading the United Mine Workers’ Occupational Health and Safety Department before retiring. His nomination had been praised by union activists, but greeted with some trepidation by coal companies.

Main was a strong critic of the previous head of MSHA, Richard Stickler.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has approved President Obama‘s nominee for the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Joseph Main‘s nomination will now go to the full Senate.

If approved, Main will run MSHA, which oversees the safety of surface and underground mining operations, which Kentucky has in droves. Main’s appointment will likely be a major boost for mine safety advocates.

From McClatchy:

“I don’t think Obama could have chosen anyone better for the job,” said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer and mine-safety advocate. “Joe has done more for mine safety in the U.S. than anyone in the past 25 to 30 years.”

Oppegard said Main’s nomination “signals a change of direction in terms of mine safety in this country. It’s a 180 degree shift from the policies of the Bush administration and its favoring of coal industry executives.”

Indeed, coal industry executives were disappointed on Monday.

“It’s going to be frustrating having somebody with an agenda that is pro-union,” said Bill Caylor, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’re not looking forward to it.”

Disclosure: My father worked for MSHA for decades.

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