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"They're deliberately abusing the system and creating a backlog that is making it difficult for MSHA and everyone involved," said Richard Stickler, the Labor Department's acting assistant secretary for mine safety and health. "It's unfortunate, the amount of resources going on in that process."
That strategy appears to be one employed by operators of Emery County's Crandall Canyon mine, where six miners were trapped - and ultimately entombed - and three rescuers killed in a separate cave-in last August.
A congressional report released in March contained an internal working document in which Crandall Canyon's operator, UtahAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of the mine's co-owner, Murray Energy Corp., said the company had instituted "a blanket policy of contesting all MSHA safety violations, regardless of the merits of the contest petition."
From last Oct. 1 through April, Murray Energy has contested 271 of the 273 citations issued at its Utah mines, according to MSHA.
"Such an institutionalized policy of battling regulators without regard to the merits of a particular citation bespeaks an inappropriate attitude toward safety," responded the report by Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Stickler spoke with reporters Monday, touting the agency's work to implement provisions of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006, signed into law by President Bush two years and a day before. The MSHA head said his agency has worked "very diligently" to comply with the sweeping reforms. MSHA issued 140,000 violations last year, he said, and is on track to cite mine operators 180,000 times this year.
"MSHA has worked very hard, from myself all the way down to the mine inspectors," Stickler said. "There's no doubt in my mind, we've tried to do our very best to implement all of the provisions as soon as we possibly could."
His comments come days ahead of a congressional oversight hearing on MSHA's implementation of the MINER Act, passed by Congress after three tragedies at Appalachian mines. The legislation set higher standards for seals in mines, required more training for mine rescue teams, increased fines and mandated continuous updating of mine emergency response plans.
In April, the Government Accountability Office said two key provisions had not been applied: one requiring air to be provided to trapped miners, another ensuring two-way, wireless technology for underground workers.
A rule proposed Monday would address the first issue. But Stickler expressed doubt mines will be outfitted with wireless technology by the MINER Act's June 2009 deadline. "I can't predict the future, but we certainly don't see it at this time."
The law allows alternatives to wireless technology if none exist by the deadline.
Stickler said the MINER Act would not have prevented the Crandall Canyon disaster. But, he added. "we've already taken several measures to help prevent a similar accident."