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Federal regulators promise to get tough with coal mine operators who dodge safety inspections by warning miners underground when federal inspectors arrive.
The practice was detailed by my colleague Frank Langfitt in a report in May and was described in a congressional hearing the same week.
Former miners and mine inspectors told NPR and a congressional committee that some mine officials, security guards, truck drivers and other surface workers call down to their colleagues underground when they see federal mine safety inspectors approach.
That gives the miners time to avoid safety violations and citations, which can lead to mine shutdowns and thousands of dollars in fines.
The former miners and mine inspectors described the practice as common.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration responded Thursday with a warning of its own to mine operators. The agency said it's prepared to seek civil fines and criminal prosecution, including jail time, for mine workers who engage in this inspection dodge.
"It’s not only illegal, it’s reprehensible,” said Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, in a written statement. "Mining personnel who give advance notice are showing contempt for the law and for the safety and health of miners.”
The agency launched a series of surprise coal mine inspections across the country after the deadly explosion in April at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The deadliest coal mine accident in 40 years killed 29 mineworkers.
In at least two of those surprise inspections, "miners illegally provided advance notice of a federal inspector’s presence on mine property," according to the agency's statement.
And in just the last month, inspectors actually commandeered the phone systems in four mines so that they could conduct inspections without advanced warnings. They issued more than 130 citations and violation orders and found conditions so dangerous they shutdown all or part of the mines.
"It's a cat and mouse game," said Terry Scarbro, a federal mine inspector for 14 years, in the May NPR story. "You catch me, I'll fix it. If I can get ahead of you and fix it before you catch it, then you didn't see it."
“They know how to fix problems when the MSHA inspector is on site," said mine safety chief Joe Main in his agency's statement. "Yet they ignore the rules and put miners at risk the rest of the time."
The National Mining Association objects to the new warning about mine inspections.
NMA Spokeswoman Carol Raulston told the Associated Press, "MSHA's high public profile on this inspection technique is offensive to the vast majority of U.S. mines that are trying their best to comply with all safety requirements and to improve miner safety."
The AP also reported that the federal mine safety agency issued 31 citations for advance notice violations last year. That was the highest number in a decade. This year, the agency has issued 28 of the citations so far.