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Delinquent Mine Fines: 'Clearly Troubling ... More Can Be Done'

A key House Republican called today for federal regulators to crack down on mine owners who don't pay fines for safety violations, saying, "Clearly more can be done."

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, was reacting to an investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News, which documented nearly 4,000 injuries and 131,000 violations at more than 4,600 mines — all as they failed to pay nearly $70 million in safety fines.

"The findings of the NPR report are deeply troubling," Kline said in a written statement. "We have tools in place to crack down on these scofflaws, but what's missing is a stronger commitment to use those tools."

NPR/MSHN found that these delinquent mines collectively had an average injury rate 50 percent higher than that of mines that paid their fines.

"I intend to reach out to Assistant Secretary [of Labor Joe] Main and others within the administration to discuss how we can do better [at] ensuring [that] federal mine safety laws and the consequences for breaking those laws are both vigorously enforced," Kline said.

As chairman of the Workforce Committee, Kline is the House gatekeeper for any mine safety reform legislation. A sweeping bill that would, among many other things, force the shutdown of mines six months after they become delinquent has languished in Congress. Opponents say it brings unnecessary regulation to an industry already reeling from declining demand for coal, competition from cheaper natural gas, tougher emission restrictions on coal-fired power plants, and diminishing coal seams, especially in Appalachia.

Kline's statement emphasizes existing enforcement tools and not any new regulatory authority.

According to Brian Newell, Kline's spokesman, the tools he's referring to involve the Labor Department's partnership with the Justice Department to force debt collection with federal court orders and settlements.

Our investigation found that this approach has limited success. The agencies sought settlements or filed federal court complaints in 34 cases since 2007. The mining companies involved agreed to pay or were ordered to pay $5.9 million in delinquent fines. Less than $800,000, or roughly 13 percent, was actually collected.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which regulates mine safety, has not responded to NPR's requests for comment about our findings or to questions about what the agency is doing, if anything, as a result.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.