Mines That Change Owners Have Worse Safety Record, Audit Finds

MSHA head David Zatezelo during a visit to West Virginia University.

A new federal government report shows that mines that changed ownership had worse safety records than mines where ownership did not change. According to an audit from the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General, mines that changed ownership during a 17-year period were nearly twice as likely to have safety violations, and five times as likely to report severe accidents in the same period.

Mines that changed hands had on average 134 safety violations, compared with 43 safety violations at mines that did not change hands.

That could have implications for the Ohio Valley, where a spate of coal bankruptcies has industry watchers worried about continued turmoil for coal producers and more turnover of mine ownership.

The audit comes after investigations from the Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR into unpaid debts for mine safety violations by coal mine operators, notably the companies belonging to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s family. The Justice group’s mines owed more than $4 million in delinquent mine safety fines, and in May the Department of Justice filed a civil suit to recover those debts.

According to an analysis of mine safety data by the ReSource, injury rates for miners working in delinquent underground coal mines are 31 percent higher than rates at mines that are not currently delinquent.

The Inspector General’s audit concluded that the Mine Safety and Health Administration did not evaluate whether its penalty program was effective. MSHA also said evaluating the safety fine program would be difficult, as many factors contributed to each mine’s safety record.

The report included coal mines and other types of mines MSHA categorizes as “metal and non-metal” mines, which makes it difficult to say what the data means specifically for Appalachian coal mining. Wes Addington, executive director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, said coal mining is more dangerous and more deadly than other forms of mining, so including other data obscures issues unique to coal mines.

“There are so many metal/non-metal operations that it skews the information for coal operations in a way that makes the data not very useful,” Addington said.

The audit also concluded that MSHA did not consider a mine operator’s record of past safety fine debts when issuing identification for a new mine.

“What’s weird about the report is they want to come to the broad conclusion that the system of fines doesn’t affect safety,” Addington said. “And yet, towards the end, they want to make the point that MSHA should look at not issuing new mine IDs to companies that don’t pay their fines.”

In a response to the audit, MSHA head David Zatezelo said federal regulations prevented the agency from considering previous safety records when assigning new mining permits, but committed to exploring ways to measure the success of its violation penalty program.