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Government faces massive backlog of mine safety cases

WASHINGTON — Stepped-up enforcement of mine safety laws has caused such a backlog of new cases that delays could undermine a crackdown on repeat violators, lawmakers warned Tuesday.

Federal officials who handle mine safety enforcement cases told a House panel the backlog has jumped from roughly 2,700 cases in 2006 to about 16,000 cases now.

The spike happened after Congress passed tougher mine safety legislation in 2006, when 12 West Virginia miners were killed in the Sago mine disaster. The Mine Safety and Health Administration also began more vigorous enforcement and increased penalties.

"This staggering caseload will render federal efforts to hold bad mine operators accountable meaningless," said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Miller and other safety advocates claim mine owners are purposely clogging the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission — the independent agency that resolves such cases — by contesting more violations.

MSHA data shows that 48 mines employing more than 6,000 miners could face tougher sanctions if not for delays at the review commission.

United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts said the system rewards mine operators that contest penalties. When penalties are tied up in the backlog, it delays the potential for tougher penalties for repeat offenders.

"They do not want to have a history or a pattern established so that MSHA will come down more harshly on them and make them comply with the law," Roberts said.

Mining industry spokesman Bruce Watzman denied any intent to clog the system. He blamed new regulations for eliminating more informal conferences where penalties could be agreed on without litigation.

Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, also said the backlog poses no threat to miner safety because owners must fix problems while penalties are being appealed. He pointed out the number of miners killed fell last year to 35, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago.

Mary Lu Jordan, chairwoman of the review commission, said her agency could start to trim its backlog in about three years by streamlining procedures and hiring more judges and staff. President Barack Obama's 2011 budget request seeks a 27 percent increase in spending for the commission.

MSHA chairman Joe Main said he is considering allowing more informal conferences to resolve disputes and reduce the case backlog. His agency also plans to speed up cases where mine operators appear to be contesting violations solely to delay findings of a more serious pattern of safety problems.