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Prior notice of federal inspectors on mine property prohibited, stresses MSHA bulletin (8/27)

The U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration announced in a recent press statement the release of a new Program Information Bulletin pertaining to the prohibition of advance notification of federal mine inspectors on mine property. The PIB reminds mine operators, miners' representatives and MSHA enforcement personnel that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act) prohibits providing advance notice of inspections conducted by MSHA inspectors. In addition, the PIB clarifies potential consequences for anyone who violates this advance notice prohibition.

MSHA decided to distribute these guidelines based, in part, on testimony delivered during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing in Beckley, W.Va., last May. Testimony from family members of miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine indicated that concerns over safety conditions existed at the mine prior to the deadly blast. Two weeks after the blast, MSHA conducted a series of enhanced inspections at 57 coal mines around the country and found that, in at least two cases, miners illegally provided advance notice of a federal inspector's presence on mine property. Recently, MSHA inspectors commandeered the phones at four underground coal mines in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia before mining personnel could announce the inspectors' arrival. These mines were the target of enhanced inspections because they were believed to be conducting unsafe practices.

"Mining personnel who give advance notice are showing contempt for the law and for the safety and health of miners," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "They know how to fix problems when the MSHA inspector is on site, yet they ignore the rules and put miners at risk the rest of the time. It's not only illegal, it's reprehensible."

According to Section 108(a) of the Mine Act, MSHA may initiate a civil action for relief, including permanent and temporary injunctions, restraining orders, or any other appropriate order, for operator violations of the advance notice of inspections prohibition.

In addition to a permanent and temporary injunction, Section 110(e) of the Mine Act provides that any person who gives advance notice of any inspection is, upon conviction, subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment or both. Additionally, an operator may be assessed a civil penalty under § 110(a) of the Act for violating the § 103(a) prohibition on advance notice of inspections. Finally, § 110(c) of the Mine Act imposes personal liability on individual corporate agents if they knowingly authorized, ordered, or carried out a violation of a mandatory health or safety standard or an order issued under the Act.

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