DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We have an update on an NPR investigation that we've heard about on this program. It focused on thousands of American mine operators. They were fined over safety concerns but failed to pay almost $70 million in penalties. And meanwhile, the companies continue to manage dangerous and sometimes deadly mining operations, reporting nearly 4,000 injuries. Now federal regulators are responding, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Since our series aired, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration did something critics have said it should've been doing all along. It threatened to shut down a mine with delinquent safety penalties. The owner had two weeks to pay, and when he didn't, they did shut him down. Within 40 minutes, he agreed to a payment plan and reopened. It sounds simple, but it's a novel approach, says Larry Grayson, a mine safety consultant to Congress and industry.
LARRY GRAYSON: The operator in this particular case did not challenge that legally. Someone's going to. And then that's going to protract the amount of time it's going to take to resolve the issues.
BERKES: This has been tried before, but it's rare. And it's not clear that federal regulators have the authority to do it. The law won't let them close a mine simply because of delinquent fines, but they can force a mine to fix safety problems. They're essentially treating unpaid fines as unfixed safety problems. Grayson says it will probably take a court challenge to sort it out.
GRAYSON: Until it is challenged, it is iffy. But once that process starts, as slow as it may be, there will be a level of worry among the operators, and hopefully it would change many of them.
BERKES: The Tennessee mine targeted with this direct approach owes about $30,000 in delinquent penalties. But its owner has other mines owing $2 million overall. Federal regulators hit them with blitz inspections and other tough enforcement while they were open. But safety violations continued. This is the mine safety agency's typical approach and Grayson says it's not enough.
GRAYSON: In the meantime - let's say it takes two years to ferret out all of the top egregious violators - look at all of the injuries that are going to occur. And these are the high injury rate mines or operators.
BERKES: The Mine Safety and Health Administration says it's also putting together what it calls a better early warning system for delinquent mines it might take to federal court. But agency officials won't discuss details or any new initiatives. A written response to our series is posted on our website at npr.org.
Taking mining companies to court takes time, rarely results in payments and doesn't stop ongoing violations and injuries, according to our investigation. Something more definitive is required, says Democratic Senator Bob Casey in Pennsylvania.
SENATOR BOB CASEY: Unless the law is clear and unless the tools are substantial to impose accountability, they will keep violating.
BERKES: Which is what would happen if Congress enacts a sweeping mine safety reform bill Casey says he'll soon reintroduce. It would automatically shut down delinquent mines six months after they become delinquent. Casey also says he might consider making that delinquent mine sanction a separate bill or attaching it to a budget measure.
CASEY: I want to get results, and if results take more than one bill, I'm willing to consider that.
BERKES: Mine safety consultant Larry Grayson says he may fold our findings into a new analysis of safety risks in coal mines. There's also a major workers' compensation insurance company now looking at our data. A statistician at AIG is considering the higher injury rate we found at delinquent mines. He wants to know whether delinquent mining companies have additional risk that should be factored into their insurance policies and rates. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.