March 8, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The head of the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) marked his third month on the job with a warning to mine operators: pay your penalties! David Zatezalo announced plans to beef up efforts to collect delinquent monetary penalties.

In an op-ed published on March 6 in the Wheeling News-Register, Zatezalo wrote:

“…some operators do not pay their fines on time and in full. Failure to pay penalties is unfair to miners who deserve safe workplaces, and it is unfair to mine operators who play by the rules. By failing to prevent violations and then failing to pay fines, non-compliant operators gain an unfair competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Uncollected fines combined with continued violations show disregard for the law and our nation’s miners. For this reason, I am taking action to strengthen MSHA’s Scofflaw Program…”

The problem of uncollected monetary penalties is a sore spot for MSHA. Following the 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine, the public learned that Massey Energy owed more than $1.3 million in unpaid penalties for mine safety violations. That led to both an Inspector General investigation and deep inquiries by journalists.

Among those investigations was an analysis published in April 2013 by Mine Safety and Health News. They found mining companies owed the U.S. Treasury nearly $70 million in delinquent penalties. One of the top offenders was James C. Justice II, who is now the Governor of West Virginia. His companies owed more than $1.3 million in delinquent penalties. It’s important to remember that those dollars are linked to violations of mine safety regulations.

This week’s statement by the assistant secretary for mine safety and health indicated that his agency would shut down operations until they pay up. He punctuated his announcement by saying that during any forced shutdown, operators would have to continue to pay their employees.  Zatezalo wrote:

If operators fail to show good faith and arrange to pay their penalties, MSHA will pursue them with every means under the law. Just as drivers who don’t pay their speeding tickets may see their driving privileges suspended, mine operators that do not pay their safety and health fines can be forced to cease production until fines are resolved. At all times, miners will be paid.

I was glad to read the new MSHA chief’s announcement. Employers shouldn’t get away with thumbing their nose at the law. I like his suspended license analogy because I had my own vehicle-related analogy for a 2013 blog post on this same topic. Mine involved the wheel clamp or “parking boot” which is affixed to a vehicle to prevent it from being moved until parking tickets are paid. The City of Los Angeles has had programs on-and-off to boot or tow vehicles that have five or more unpaid citations. In Houston, a vehicle can get booted for having three or more outstanding citations.

Zatezalo’s focus on scofflaw mine operators with outstanding penalties raises questions for me to pursue. How many mine operators meet MSHA’s criteria?  What is the criteria? What’s the current total for delinquent penalties?

I’ll work on getting the answers.


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