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Inspector general asks Congress to ensure MSHA's ability to close unsafe mines

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Inspector general asks Congress to ensure MSHA's ability to close unsafe mines

U.S. Department of Labor auditors called on Congress to review the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 to ensure the federal agency that oversees mine safety has clear authority to take actions to protect miners' lives.

In its recent semiannual report to Congress, the Labor Department's Office of Inspector General, or OIG, wrote that the law "charges the Secretary of Labor with protecting the lives and health of workers in coal and other mines" and allows the secretary, or an authorized representative, to order mine closures if needed.

The report said two decisions by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission — an independent federal agency that adjudicates legal disputes about the mining law — held that provisions in the law limit the authority of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA.

The rulings "clearly evidence the need for legislative action" to ensure that MSHA's authority to issue mine closure orders is "broad, clear, and not vulnerable to challenge," the OIG wrote. MSHA is the Labor Department agency charged with enforcing the Mine Safety and Health Act.

The auditors also said they were concerned about MSHA's ability to "effectively manage its resources to help ensure the safety and health of miners."

One problem is mine operators that under-report occupational injuries and illnesses, which hinders MSHA's ability to focus its resources on the most dangerous mines, the report said.

"In addition, we are concerned that MSHA lacks a consistent approach to logging, assessing, and responding to complaints of hazardous mine conditions, and the agency has not provided sufficient oversight to ensure that coal mine operators' emergency response plans provide the critical information needed to help miners survive a mine catastrophe," the report said.

MSHA also needs to create a plan to address the growing rate of black lung disease in Appalachia, according to the report.

The OIG considers the need to ensure the solvency of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund as an area of significant concern that causes the Labor Department to be at the risk of fraud, mismanagement, waste, deficiencies or abuse, according to the report. The fund provides monthly compensation and medical benefits to totally disabled coal miners suffering from black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, and their eligible survivors.

The tax on coal sold domestically that feeds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund dropped this year, which may further strain a fund that has been borrowing from the U.S. Treasury's general fund to meet its obligations, according to the report. As of Sept. 30, 2018, the fund had a $5.6 billion deficit balance, which is expected to grow to nearly $14.2 billion by 2043.

U.S. coal production is expected to continue declining over the next few years, which will also limit the amount of money flowing into the fund, and at least three coal companies filed for bankruptcy in the last 12 months. The trust fund will have to cover payments made by self-insured mine operators that went out of business and can no longer pay for black lung liabilities.

Another challenge facing the black lung program is the quality and timeliness of disability claim decisions, the report said. The OIG found in a 2015 review that the department's medical reports were often not as detailed or clear as those from physicians paid by mine operators, and hearings and decisions by the Office of Administrative Law Judges were often delayed. While the department had a 46-month backlog of pending black lung cases in 2014, it was reduced to 22 months in 2018.

Throughout fiscal 2019, the OIG will continue to audit MSHA's handling of mine safety violations, including whether it is assessing and collecting the correct penalty amounts and whether assessing financial penalties reduces future mine safety violations. The audits will also review the administration's oversight of preparing mine rescue teams.