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Mining regulators to increase fines for safety violations

WASHINGTON—Federal mining regulators, in the wake of criticism that the penalties they impose on the industry are too low, announced plans Thursday to levy higher fines as a way to curb safety violations.

The "current penalty structure is 25 years old and needs updating to strengthen incentives for compliance," said David Dye, acting administrator of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, in a statement. "Mine safety violations put workers at risk, so the penalties for those violations need to be serious and straightforward."

Federal mine safety officials have been under fire in the wake of the deadly Sago Mine accident in West Virginia. So far this year 22 people have died in U.S. mines, the agency Web site noted Thursday.

A Knight Ridder analysis published in January found that the number of major fines over $10,000 has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 2001 and the dollar amount of penalties, when adjusted for inflation, has plummeted 43 percent to a median of $27,584.

"While we've seen fatalities and injury rates dramatically decrease in recent years, the number of violations have remained high. And the West Virginia fatal accidents have caused MSHA to look at the whole range of things that could better protect miners," Dye said.

"MSHA is reviewing its penalty structure, which has not been adjusted in decades, and believes penalties need to be revised upward to maximize their enforcement effect," he said.

Under current regulations for most fines, each mine safety violation is assigned points. The penalty structure, however, doesn't increase fines proportionately as the number of points increase.

For example, 100 penalty points results in the current maximum $60,000 fine. But a mine with 50 penalty points is eligible for a fine of just $878. Only at 80 penalty points do fines go over $10,000.

MSHA officials said they'll begin the rulemaking process to revise the penalty structure, including increasing penalties. No details were available Thursday evening on when that would be completed.

Officials with the United Mine Workers of America couldn't be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Congress sets the maximum fine, and there are separate proposals pending in Congress to raise it from $60,000 to $220,000.

Raising the maximum fine isn't enough, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. He said regulators need to levy substantial fines already available to them.

"The Bush administration has always had the authority—without coming to Congress for permission—to stiffen the penalties for mine safety violations. I am encouraged to see that the administration is finally recognizing that fact," said Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "Now, however, the devil is in the details."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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