While we’re on vacation, we’re re-posting content from earlier in the year. This post was originally published on April 16, 2013.
By Celeste Monforton
An analysis by Mine Safety and Health News (MSHN) finds that nearly $70 million in delinquent penalties are owed to the U.S. Treasury by mining companies for violations of federal mine safety and health regulations. One of the top offenders is James C. Justice II, the owner of the Greenbriar Resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV. He owes more than $1.33 million in delinquent penalties.
MSHN notes that his net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine to be $1.7 billion. MSHN’s analysis shows 60 mine operators have racked up more than $100,000 in delinquent penalties, and there are seven who each owe the public coffers more than $1 million in delinquent penalties. The 60 mining companies alone account for more than half of the $70 million in delinquent penalties.
Monetary penalties are initially proposed by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for violations observed by federal inspectors during mine inspections. If a mine operator or contractor objects to the inspector’s findings or the penalty amount, he has the right to contest it before an independent body of judges. The penalty might be upheld, reduced or deleted altogether, but once the case has been heard and decided, the mine operator is expected to pay the penalty amount determined by the judge. It is these kind of cases—ones in which the violations and/or penalties are deemed “final orders”—for which the $70 million is owed. The unpaid penalties are considered delinquent when six months pass without a payment.
The same day I read MSHN’s report about the $70 million in delinquent penalties owed by mine operators, I learned that MSHA plans to defund a program that provides about $8 million in grants to State-based organizations—nearly one in every State—-to conduct safety training.
In these austere times, it seems more important than ever for the federal government to get serious about collecting the money it’s owed from lawbreakers. Local governments do it—-I think of the wheel clamp or “parking boot” affixed to a vehicle to prevent it from being moved until parking tickets are paid. Traffic control officers use parking boots for habitual parking violators. In Los Angeles, a vehicle will get the “parking boot” if it has five or more unpaid citations. In Houston, a vehicle can get booted for having three or more outstanding citations. In Washington, DC, a vehicle can get booted for having two parking tickets that are more than 60 days old, and now the City is looking to garnish income tax refunds of repeat parking violators. Surely if cities can get tough with individuals who break parking regulations, we can get more creative in forcing labor law violators to pay the penalties they owe.
Currently, MSHA will attempt to collect unpaid penalties from mine operators with letters and phone calls. If 180 days pass and the agency is unsuccessful, they can refer the debt to the U.S. Treasury for further debt collection efforts. But with $70 million in delinquent penalties owed by mine operators, these current collection efforts obviously aren’t cutting it. (An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found the same under performance collecting unpaid penalties assessed by OSHA to employers who violate worker safety regulations. The Center reported that over the most recent seven fiscal years, “OSHA referred about $131 million in debts to the Treasury Department, but only about $16 million was collected.”)
Earlier this year, Congressman George Miller (D-CA) introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 1373) which would strengthen certain provisions of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Section 305 of Miller’s bill specifically addresses mine operators with delinquent penalties.
It says, if a mine operator has not paid a penalty within 180 days after it has become of final order and the operator has not entered into a formal plan to pay off the penalty, the Secretary of Labor shall issue an order to withdraw all persons from the mine. Without workers in the mine, production will cease. The withdrawal order will remain in place until the delinquent penalty is paid or the operator enters a formal plan to pay off the penalty. Furthermore, if the operator fails to keep up with the payment plan, another withdrawal order will be imposed.
A practical, common sense approach, like a “boot” device for mine operators.