The number of chronic safety violators among mine operators has fallen sharply in recent years, according to government figures being released Thursday.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration says the number has dropped in response to reforms the agency has taken to rein in bad actors. The National Mining Association counters that the industry's own safety program deserves the credit.
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The government puts repeat safety offenders on its Pattern of Violations, or POV, list, which is reserved for mines that pose the greatest risk to the safety and health of miners. A POV designation means that that if a federal inspector were to find another significant and substantial violation, an order would be issued to withdraw miners from a specific area, effectively ceasing operations of that area until the problem is corrected there.
Prior to 2010, according to MSHA, no mine had been put on that list. But partly in response to the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29 miners, MHSA toughened its enforcement that year and began citing mines for POV actions. Since then, seven mines have been on the POV list.
In its 2010 screening, 51 chronic violators were identified for further review among mine operators. But for this year's screening, that number had dropped to 12. The biggest reduction came in coal mines, which dropped from 42 in 2010 to six this year.
The numbers were obtained by The Associated Press ahead of their official release on Thursday.
"For first time in the history of the Mine Act, mine operators were under the threat of being placed on a POV action if they failed to clean up their act," Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main said in a telephone interview. "That was really never a threat before. We're not seeing the kind of records that Upper Big Branch and other mines were amassing" anymore.
In the 2010 screening, the worst 12 offenders were cited for 2,050 violations of significant health or safety standards; by this year, that number had fallen to 857.
Main said that there was a corresponding reduction in the number of deaths and injuries, noting that for the most recent fiscal year for which numbers are available, ending Sept. 30, 2013, there were record-low fatality and injury rates, as well as the fewest mining deaths, 33. But MHSA also announced in January that fatalities for the 2013 calendar year had increased. There were 41 fatalities, up from 36 the previous calendar year, because of an especially deadly final three months, which claimed the lives of 14 miners.
Main said there's been a "cultural change" in the mining industry, much of it driven by the agency's push on POV actions.
But Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said that while his group was pleased with the increased numbers, it doesn't share MSHA's premise for what's driving it.
"NMA's own CORESafety program, consisting of best safety practices from around the world and from other industries, was implemented in our biggest member company mines beginning in 2011," Popovich said in an email. "I don't think it's coincidental that this program coincided with the documented improvement in the numbers MSHA is now showing."
He added that mines have an incentive to operate safely.
"Our members recognize because they've documented the correlation between safe mines and productive mines," Popovich said.
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