Friday, January 13, 2006

Empty Promises on Safety Penalties

Are penalties under the federal mine safety law adequate to deter violators? Many have asked since the Sago tragedy.

So far no one in the media, that I have seen, has noted that the Department of Labor has been promising a penalty increase for the past 3 years -- and done nothing.

Most recently, on February 7, 2005, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao announced that the President's proposed budget for FY 2006 "also calls for substantially increasing the fine for egregious mine safety violations to $200,000 from $60,000."

But nothing has been done.

This, moreover, was not a novel announcement. The Department had made similar promises before.

From a speech of then-Assistant Secretary of MSHA Dave D. Lauriski said in February 2003:

"The Department of Labor intends to introduce legislation to allow for the assessment by MSHA of penalties up to $220,000 to address 'egregious violations.' This provision would be applied on a case-by-case basis and would be reserved for those violations that meet certain criteria demonstrated by those who have disrespect for the law. It would not affect penalties for the vast majority of violations, but would give the agency another tool to deal with the few cases in which mine operators expose miners to serious hazards without regard for the law."

As it happens, I attended the House hearing on MSHA's appropriations for FY 2006. Acting Asssitant Secretary for MSHA David Dye said nothing at in the hearing about raising penalties, and when I tried to ask about it, walked away.

The top penalty for any single violation is $60,000. The minimum penalty is $60. Most fall somewhere in between, but MSHA has cited more infractions lately as "non-significant and -substantial violations," eligible for the minimum.

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