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Lawmakers question MSHA on ‘unprecedented action’ to remove mine’s POV status

Photo: Michał Chodyra/iStockphoto

Arlington, VA — Top-ranking Democrats in the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Workforce Protections Subcommittee are questioning the legality of a Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission decision to remove a Sophia, WV, mine from Mine Safety and Health Administration Pattern of Violations status.

On Aug. 28, FMSHRC settled a case between MSHA and Pocahontas Coal Co. LLC, deciding to release Pocahontas’ Affinity Mine from POV status, which it attained in October 2013 after two fatal incidents.

Under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, MSHA may issue POV notices to mine operators who “demonstrate a disregard for the health and safety of miners through a pattern of significant violations.” Mines receiving a POV notice are issued withdrawal orders, meaning work must stop – at least temporarily – until the violation(s) are abated.

In a Sept. 21 letter to MSHA administrator David Zatezalo, Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Mark Takano (D-CA) cite public mine inspection data showing Affinity Mine had not undergone final inspection for an absence of significant and substantial violations, as required by the act. Further, Scott and Takano note that MSHA issued 265 significant and substantial violations to the mine operator after the POV notice was issued on Oct. 24, 2013, through Sept. 9, when the data was accessed.

“For that reason, we are seeking information to better understand the legal basis for this decision and what transpired inside the Department of Labor that led MSHA to take this unprecedented action,” the letter states.

In an Oct. 1 press release, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts calls the FMSHRC decision “a dangerous step in the wrong direction for America’s coal miners.”

“Let me be clear: Every rule, every regulation in the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act is written in the blood of a dead or injured miner,” Roberts said in the release. “If a rule is there, it is because someone was injured or killed on the job before that rule was written. [Significant and substantial] violations are some of the most serious violations of the law that can occur in a mine. Pretending they are otherwise puts miners at severe risk.”

The FMSHRC ruling included pointed dissent from former Commissioner Robert F. Cohen, whose term expired Aug. 30.

“Approving the settlement only provides cover for an unlawful agreement by the current administration,” Cohen wrote.

On Aug. 31, United Coal, the parent company of Pocahontas Coal, issued a press release outlining data showing Affinity Mine “has vastly improved its safety and regulatory compliance history” since 2013.

“The Affinity team was very relieved to hear that the POV is terminated, but understand our commitment and actions toward safety and compliance will not change,” Jeff Birchfield, manager of Affinity Mine, said in the release. “Affinity will remain committed toward our core values … obtain zero incidents and world-class compliance rates.”

Don Jones, director of safety at United Coal, added in the release that Affinity Mine was the lone mine nationwide to remain in operation while under MSHA POV sanctions.

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