MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- New federal rules approved Thursday could help save lives at dangerous mines with a pattern of safety violations and put more responsibility on companies to find and fix hazards, the U.S. Department of Labor said.
The changes were first proposed less than a year after the Upper Big Branch mine exploded in April 2010, killing 29 men. It was the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said her agency has since undertaken "a serious and comprehensive evaluation of mine safety practices."
The Mine Safety and Health Administration said the new rules could help prevent a disaster like Upper Big Branch.
"This rule is long overdue, and it will, over the long term, serve to make mines safer for those who choose to be miners in this country," MSHA director Joe Main told The Associated Press.
Among other things, the rules let MSHA designate a company a pattern violator without a prior warning. They also eliminate the requirement that MSHA can consider only final orders; previously, the agency could not impose the designation until the operators finished appealing violations, which could take months or years.
Although MSHA has technically had the power to designate pattern violators since the passage of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act since 1977, Main said it didn't happen until 33 years later.
"MSHA should not be prevented from taking action to protect the lives of miners for months, or even years, while we await the final outcome of citations and orders that a mine operator can easily contest," said Main, who took over the agency in October 2009.
But the National Mining Association, which had objected to the rule when it was proposed in February 2011, said its concerns remain. It argues that because unsafe conditions must be fixed under current law, "no miner is put in harm's way if a citation is appealed."
Stripping the appeal from the current system denies operators their due-process rights, the association contends.
MSHA has said that until 2007, its pattern of violations screening was "decentralized and lacked a consistent, structured approach."
That changed after back-to-back disasters in 2006 at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia, and at the Darby No. 1 mine in Kentucky. MSHA developed new screening criteria and a scoring system to produce new computer-generated lists.
Main said the numbers show the new system is working: In 2010, 53 mines were identified during the screening process, and 17 received letters they could be labeled pattern violators. Last year, only 20 mines met the screening criteria, and only four received such notices.
That shows the new rules "will not affect most of the mines in this country," Main said. "And those who have problems have opportunities to fix those problems."
The National Mining Association, however, said the rule means some operators will "unjustifiably" be put on a pattern of violations list, "the agency's most severe enforcement tool, with little or no protection."
Operators and the public have been able to view violation data online since April 2011, and Main said it is up to the companies to check for any potential problems.
There is nothing in the Mine Act, Main said, that requires MSHA to warn the operators. But those who see they have a problem developing can submit an improvement plan to MSHA, which can consider that as a mitigating circumstance in its review.
The rule is the third regulation MSHA has issued to try to prevent coal dust explosions like the one at Upper Big Branch.
In June 2011, it passed new standards for rock dusting, or the application of pulverized limestone to render coal dust inert. Last year, it passed rules related to problems at Upper Big Branch, including ventilation, methane, roof control and accumulation of combustible materials.
U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, praised the Labor Department for closing loopholes that he said some mine operators have "exploited to the detriment of workers' lives and limbs."
But both Miller and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called on Congress to do more and vowed to reintroduce the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act this year.
The legislation was first introduced in 2010, a month after the death of its namesake, the late Democratic senator from West Virginia. It was reintroduced in 2011 and revised by Rockefeller in 2012 but has languished in the Republican-controlled House.
Among other things, the bill would strengthen whistleblower protections for miners who report safety concerns, increase MSHA's oversight and accountability, and give the agency tougher enforcement tools.