Thursday, August 22, 2019

Federal audit: $1 billion in fines hasn't made mines safer

Fines of more than $1 billion over 18 years for unsafe conditions have not improved mine safety, according to a four-year long audit from the Labor Department's inspector general.

"The audit was prompted by a 2014 NPR investigation of thousands of mines and mining companies that did find such a connection. Specifically, NPR found that mines that persistently ignored their penalties had injury rates 50 percent higher than mines that paid their fines," Howard Berkes and Robert Benincasa report for NPR. "In total, NPR examined the safety records of mines that had failed to pay nearly $70 million in penalties, some with delinquent fines that were decades old.

The auditors took a different tack, though: They measured data for mining companies instead of individual mines, which the OIG said made sense because mine operators must pay penalties for unsafe conditions. They also assessed safety by comparing raw numbers and averages of serious accidents and violations. That differs from the Mine Safety and Health Administration's primary metric, which is usually the rate of incidents and injuries during hours worked, NPR reports.

"The audit doesn't say whether the measures of safety and violations applied only after mines or mining companies failed to pay safety fines or while they continued to be delinquent. NPR's analysis of delinquent fines and safety applied only to mines while they were delinquent."

Wes Addington, director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky;, told NPR the audit shows that "violations are just a cost of doing business." Addington, who once conducted an independent analysis of overdue mine safety penalties and their impacts on safety, also calls the audit "superficial" and "poorly designed" because it conflates coal mines with other kinds of mines. That skews the data, he said, because metal and nonmetal mines have lower injury and violation rates.

"The auditors did recommend that MSHA not permit mining companies to operate new mines if they have outstanding penalties at existing operations," NPR reports. But "MSHA says it does not have the legal authority to deny mine operators the ability to open new mines due to unpaid fines."

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