Government Goes After Kentucky Mine for Fines
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Wednesdays, we focus on the workplace, and today, the safety of those who work in mines.
The federal government has filed a lawsuit against a Kentucky coal operator to collect past fines, and it is also demanding that money be set aside to pay any future fines. That would set a precedent for toughness.
Safety advocates, though, say this tactic is just a public relations move to make the government look more aggressive after a number of mining deaths.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as MSHA, is suing Kentucky coal operator Stanley Osborne for more than $290,000 dollars in penalties, going back as far as the 1980s. MSHA says it hopes the suit will improve safety, and deter scofflaws.
Agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot reads from a statement.
Mr. DIRK FILLPOT (Mine Safety and Health Administration spokesperson): MSHA will use every tool at our disposal to go after operators that refuse to pay their penalties for mine safety violations, and that includes holding the people who control them personally responsible.
LANGFITT: Mine safety advocates are pleased by the suit, but given the fines Osborne has racked up in the past, they say the Agency should have filed it much sooner.
Tony Oppegard is a miner's rights attorney in Kentucky, and a former MSHA official in the Clinton Administration.
Mr. TONY OPPEGARD (Attorney): I think it's clear that the motivation for filing the lawsuit was one of their public image, and not really wanting to do the right thing. If they wanted to the right thing, they could've filed at any time in the last five years.
LANGFITT: The suit follows in an extraordinarily deadly month in West Virginia, where 16 miners died in four separate incidents. In all of last year, only 22 miners died throughout the entire country.
Fillpot, the MSHA spokesman, denies the suit's timing has anything to do with the recent tragedies. He says the Agency has been working on it since last year.
Osborne isn't the only coal operator who hasn't paid his fines. The Appalachian Citizen's Law Center, a non-profit law firm, says coal companies in Kentucky have failed to pay 4.1 million dollars in penalties since 1995. Wes Addington, who compiled the figures, says MSHA isn't more aggressive because its leaders are too close to the business they regulate.
Mr. WES ADDINGTON (Appalachian Citizen's Law Center): Part of the problem is, you know, many of the higher-ups in MSHA come from the coal industry, and they fully expect to go back to the coal industry.
LANGFITT: Addington says most big companies pay their fines. But for smaller operators like Stanley Osborne, the penalties have essentially become voluntary. Osborne's been fined many times, but he says the federal government has only tried to collect money from him once before.
He says the Agency is going after him now to deflect criticism.
Mr. STANLEY OSBORNE (Kentucky coal operator): MSHA's getting dumped on for, you know, all these outstanding penalties that people have, and they're wanting to make it look like they're doing something to correct that problem. I'm the test case, I suppose.
LANGFITT: Coal is at its highest price in years, but Osborne says he's a small operator with just 20 employees, and still can't afford to pay the fines.
As for the bond MSHA says it wants him to post for any future penalties, Osborne says he'd be willing to talk to them about it.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.