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Feds will take mines to court

| Wednesday, April 28, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The government will start going directly to federal court to shut mines that make a habit of ignoring safety, the top mine safety official told lawmakers Tuesday.

Joe Main, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said his agency has had the power to seek federal injunctions for years, but has never tried to use it.

"I can't speak for past administrations," Main said during the Senate's first hearing on the accident that killed 29 men. "We're going to use it."

Main called for a slew of legal and regulatory reforms to beef up safety enforcement in the wake of this month's deadly explosion in a mine in West Virginia.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee convened the hearing to look at weaknesses in laws that encourage mine operators and companies in other industries to challenge safety violations to delay stiffer penalties.

"There is unfortunately a population of employers that prioritize profits over safety and knowingly and repeatedly violate the law," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman.

The West Virginia mine, owned by Massey Energy Co., was repeatedly cited for problems with its methane ventilation system and other issues in the months leading up to the explosion. One category of serious violations was nearly 19 times higher than average.

But Main said Massey used a tactic popular with some companies to avoid being placed on notice of a "pattern of violation" that could result in tougher enforcement. Mining companies are contesting hundreds of citations, creating a backlog that is overwhelming government officials. The backlog often delays a finding of a pattern of violation.

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