WASHINGTON—Federal mine safety officials on Wednesday disputed a Knight Ridder analysis showing a dramatic reduction in the dollar amount of large fines for mine safety violations during the Bush administration, saying in an Internet posting that those fines are actually up.
Mine Safety and Health Administration spokesman Dirk Fillpot said that Knight Ridder made "assumptions that were incorrect" in its Jan. 6 analysis.
But when Knight Ridder conducted a new analysis in the manner suggested by Fillpot using MSHA's newest database, it showed the same dramatic drop.
The newest data show a 43 percent reduction in proposed median major fines from the last five years of the Clinton administration when compared with the first five years of the Bush administration. That's the same percentage reduction found in Knight Ridder's original analysis, using a smaller, online database of MSHA violations.
When asked about that drop and the analysis, Fillpot refused Wednesday to answer 11 specific questions about MSHA's fines, its analysis or the posting of its critique.
Instead Fillpot repeated a prepared statement that said "it is unfortunate that Knight Ridder's analysis of MSHA's penalties was inaccurate."
But four statistical experts who looked at the databases and analyses said Knight Ridder's findings were accurate and that MSHA's assessment didn't contradict the newspaper's findings of smaller fines during the Bush administration.
"It's really wrong for them (MSHA) to say you're incorrect," said John Grego, a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "There's no question that the average/median proposed penalty has gone down."
MSHA's response "is looking at two different things and making a statement as if they are looking at the same thing," said Jeff Porter, a database library director for Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., an association of journalists. Porter also teaches data analysis at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
On its Web site, MSHA said the size of the final assessments—which are lower after bargaining and appeals—are up by "nearly 38 percent." Knight Ridder looked only at proposed fines because some of the actual fines are determined not by MSHA, but by administrative judges when mining companies appeal those penalties. Further, Knight Ridder found that fines finally assessed and paid fines are still lower on average in the Bush administration.
Fillpot wouldn't explain how his agency came up with the 38 percent figure. The statistical experts said they couldn't understand how MSHA figured that out. Fillpot said "that information is taken from actual MSHA enforcement records and is accurate."
He refused to elaborate.
In an unusual posting on the Internet on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday on Monday, MSHA said, "Knight-Ridder's numbers are inaccurate, obscuring the reality that penalties issued by MSHA have gone up during this Administration—not down."
After Knight Ridder questioned the posting, it was taken down Tuesday afternoon. It went back up Wednesday morning.
Among fines of $10,000 or more, the median penalty levied in the past five years was $27,139. During the last five years of the Clinton administration, the comparable fine was $47,913, according to Knight Ridder's analysis of the newest data from MSHA.
That data, which included 221 large fines that weren't in the publicly available database used by Knight Ridder for its initial analysis, show that the total number of large fines increased to 527 in the Bush administration from 461 during the last five Clinton years. Fillpot declined to say where those extra fines came from or why they weren't in the online database.
(For more information and the complete databases, go to http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/13656501.htm.)
(Johnson reports for Lexington Herald-Leader.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map