Veteran coal industry reporter Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette is out with a story this morning that shows the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) didn't apply one of its toughest enforcement tools to the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia before a deadly explosion there last year.
After three coal mine disasters five years ago, Congress gave MSHA the ability to levy massive fines of up to $220,000 for "flagrant" safety violations.
As Ward reports, "the idea was to more harshly punish chronic and serious mine safety violations as part of a strategy to force mine operators to follow federal regulations."
MSHA officials have repeatedly said Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine had been cited with more so-called "D" orders, which require immediate withdrawal of miners for their own safety, than any other coal mine in the months before the explosion that killed 29 mine workers.
But, Ward's analysis of federal records shows no "flagrant" fines against Upper Big Branch.
The agency also did not apply other tough enforcement tools to Upper Big Branch and any other coal mine before last April's tragedy.
No mine was cited for a "pattern of violations," which would have triggered more rigorous scrutiny and enforcement. A computer error is blamed for the failure to apply that sanction at Upper Big Branch.
And it wasn't until November, 2010, that the Labor Department hauled a mine operator into federal court in response to serious and persistent safety violations. The agency had that authority, and didn't use it, for 33 years.
President Obama reacted to the Upper Big Branch tragedy by pledging "to take a hard look at our own practices and our own procedures to ensure that we're pursuing mine safety as relentlessly as we responsibly can."
MSHA initiated safety inspection blitzes targeting mines with the worst safety records but Ward's analysis of agency data shows that far fewer flagrant fines were levied once the Obama administration took command, "from 70 such assessments in 2008 to 19 each year in 2009 and 2010."
An MSHA spokeswoman told Ward that the flagrant fines issue will be addressed in an internal review prompted by the Upper Big Branch explosion.
[Howard Berkes covers rural affairs for NPR and has been reporting about "Mine Safety in America."]