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Editorial: Now is not the time to weaken W.Va. coal miners’ protection

The Times West Virginian of Fairmont:

President Donald Trump, during his campaign in 2016 and since taking office, has stated clearly that he backs the coal industry. In the months ahead, we’ll likely find out whether his administration’s concern for the industry also extends to the health and safety of coal miners. The answer will come based on how his administration handles two issues.

One has to do with two lawsuits filed by the mining industry taking issue with the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement of its “pattern of violations” rule. The program was authorized by Congress four decades ago after it determined that repeated citations and fines by federal inspectors didn’t improve safety performance. Under the program, mines with a history of serious safety problems are moved into a tougher enforcement protocol requiring closure of the part of a mine where additional serious violations occur. The pattern-of-violations designation can only be removed if a mine goes an entire quarterly inspection without a serious violation.

The rule was seldom used until about a decade ago, and an actual rule change based on the patterns of violations didn’t occur until 2013, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The lawsuits by mining industry groups were filed within a year or two, and the cases are pending.

As it stands now, coal industry operators and federal regulators are in settlement talks aimed at resolving the lawsuits. But that begs a couple of questions. Why isn’t the government standing firmly behind the pattern of violations rule, unless it plans to weaken protections for the safety of coal miners? And, if the government does settle, will a weaker enforcement program pose more dangers to miners?

Imposing tougher penalties on repeat violators is not a rarity. In criminal law, it’s common. When lives of miners are at stake, why abandon the principle? …

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