The budget that has been presented to Congress would increase MSHA’s allotment for FY 2012 by $27 million. Approximately $18 million of this increase would be for MSHA to deal with its backlog of civil penalty cases. Ever since MSHA drastically changed its civil penalty regulations in 2006 and penalties skyrocketed from $25 million in 2005 to $195 million in 2008, formal operator contests before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission have quadrupled. The proposed budget, however, is likely to be reduced.

Besides the economic impact of increased penalties, there remains the perennial operator concern about the fairness of inspector findings and enforcement actions. In a March 3, 2011 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, MSHA Head Joe Main was questioned about an MSHA Office of Accountability Report from the previous March. Main said the agency is working to correct shortcomings identified in that report (which had been furnished to the Senate Appropriations Committee).

The agency conducts accountability audits to ascertain consistency among its various district and field offices. In relation to operator concerns with regard to company records of violations and related civil penalty and pattern of violations enforcement (which Main indicated MSHA is going to increase), the findings of last year’s report are worth recalling.

Of particular significance were the following:

  • There was found to be inadequate evaluation of gravity and negligence in 20 of 25 field offices audited.
  • There was a finding that “additional training is needed for [inspectors] relative to cement plants.”
  • There was a lack of comprehensive inspections of all areas of mining operations and appropriate levels of enforcement issuances.

Thus, it is pretty clear that when MSHA finds that a field office is not properly enforcing safety rules, it means that enforcement is not rigorous enough in MSHA’s view. The repercussions of this audit certainly have been experienced by many operators over the past year.