Under federal mine safety laws, inspectors visit mines, write citations for violations and levy fines. But while many mines follow the law, a small percentage have years of outstanding penalties totaling more than $70 million. And as NPR investigative correspondent Howard Berkes found out, working at those delinquent mines is more dangerous for miners than working for a company that pays its fines.Listen to an interview with Berkes about his series.
Berkes’ series on mine safety started airing Wednesday on NPR member stations (including WFPL), and continues through Friday. He said there are a couple of telling statistics:
- “Delinquent” mines—meaning mines that haven’t paid the penalties even after they’ve become final—have an injury rate that’s 50 percent higher than mines that pay their fines.
- That injury rate increases dramatically for underground coal mines
- And there were nearly 4,000 injuries while these delinquent mines weren’t paying their penalties.
“So there is a consequence, it appears, to not collecting these fines and allowing mining companies to essentially continue to violate the law and continue to put miners at risk,” Berkes said in an interview.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration is limited in how it can collect those penalties—though some argue the agency could do more than it does. Berkes said the federal government has only taken unpaid fines to court 34 times since 2007. Through that process, regulators have collected only $783,000 out of the $5.8 million owed.
But Berkes said there are a couple of big barriers standing in the way of collecting these debts.
“One is, under the law, you can’t simply close a mine down because it hasn’t paid a penalty,” he said. “And secondly, it is very difficult to make a connection between the owner of a mine and assets that they may have that could be seized to enforce a federal court judgment.”
There’s a bill pending in Congress that would automatically shut down a mine six months after a penalty becomes delinquent. “That would change behavior pretty quick,” Berkes said, but the bill hasn’t gained traction.
As to the case that smaller mining companies have to choose whether to stay in business or pay their fines, Berkes said he doesn’t think that argument is legitimate. His team analyzed the top six delinquent mining companies (they were all coal companies). During the time these companies were delinquent, they mined 13.6 million tons of coal and Berkes said that could have netted the companies about $721 million. Collectively, the six companies owed $14.7 million in fines to the federal government.
“But our point is this: while these mines were delinquent, even the smallest mines were taking in significant amounts of money that were far more than what their penalty was,” Berkes said.
“Yes, they have costs to operate and it’s important to consider the fact that they have employees they need to pay, but I’m not sure that they couldn’t afford to pay the fines, they simply chose not to pay them. And they can get away with that because of the way the law is and because of the kind of enforcement that’s brought to this issue.”