After the West Virginia mine disaster in April that took 29 lives, the Obama administration launched a $23 million effort to improve enforcement of safety rules in the industry. In particular, it sought to reduce the two-year backlog of safety citations being appealed by mine operators.

That initiative, however, is floundering, the Washington Post reports.

Safety experts say the regulatory battle between mine operators and safety officials has escalated — as mine inspectors issue more citations, companies are fighting back harder than ever. As a result, the list of unresolved safety appeals before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission has grown from 16,600, when the deadly Upper Big Branch mine explosion occurred six months ago, to 18,100 now, according to the Post.

What’s more, nine coal miners have died on the job since the Upper Big Branch disaster, and the owners of those sites are appealing nearly 5,000 citations overall seeking more than $13 million.

Mining companies say they are fighting the citations because many of them are faulty. Nicholas Deluliis, chief operating officer for Consol Energy, told the Post that companies weren’t trying “to gum up the system,” but rather contested violations if “we think there has been a misinterpretation of the law.” Consol owns a mine where a worker died in July.

Massey Energy, the owner of Upper Big Branch, leads the list in contesting safety violations. It is fighting 39 percent of the 5,880 citations it received from January to July, and 83 percent of the $6.9 million in fines the company faces, the Post found.

Companies are even fighting citations for hazards that may have led to miners’ deaths. In Kentucky, regulators closed parts of the Dotiki mine six times because of a potentially unsafe roof — before two miners were killed by a roof collapse.

Kentucky authorities later issued three citations related to the roofing problem against the mine operator, Webster County Coal. But all three citations are being appealed by the operator’s parent company, Alliance Resource Partners. In a Security and Exchange Commission filing, the company said its own investigation concluded the deaths were caused by “unpredictable and unforeseen geological conditions.”

Critics say mining companies are clogging the system and using their influence in Washington to prevent reform. “They created this system, and they are continuing to game it,” U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said. “They don’t want it to change.”

The mining companies, even repeat offenders, often have succeeded in getting fines reduced dramatically. In one case, a Pennsylvania mine owned by Consol had been cited 180 times over the past two years for accumulation of damp loose coal along a conveyer belt, a condition that can cause explosions. The mine’s most recent citation for the loose coal carried a $11,306 fine, but was reduced to just $207.

To reduce the backlog of appeals, the government is experimenting with using mediators to try to resolve cases at the district level, and the results will be reviewed by agency officials next month. New judges and lawyers also have been hired. Still, the pile of pending appeals cases has gotten so big that officials have scaled back their goals. They now simply hope to return, by fall of next year, to the backlog of 16,600 cases they had back in April — even though, at the time, it was a record high.

Related Posts:

Mine Safety Regulators Have Flopped for 30 Years, Report Finds
28 Miners Killed This Year in Accidents Besides the Upper Big Branch Disaster
Feds Blitz Mines, Turn Up Hundreds of Safety Violations