House Hearing Tuesday to Examine FMSHRC Backlog

About 16,000 contested cases await a decision at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, a number that has grown significantly since 2006, according to the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.

The U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing beginning at 10 a.m. EST tomorrow about the large backlog of contested cases now before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. Whether the pace of ruling on appeals of MSHA enforcement actions is harming the mine safety agency's "ability to protect miners' safety and prevent future tragedies" is the focus of the hearing.

Like OSHRC, FMSHRC is an independent agency that uses administrative law judges and a panel of commissioners to review contested citations and penalties. FMSHRC is a five-member body that has four commissioners at present. "As the result of stepped-up enforcement and tougher penalties after a spate of mine tragedies in 2005 and 2006, mine owners tripled the number of violations they appeal and are now litigating 67 percent of all penalties," the House committee's announcement of the hearing states. "The backlog of cases FMSHRC must review has jumped from 2,100 in 2006 to approximately 16,000 today."

No witness list was posted on the committee's site on Friday morning.

The most recent FMSHRC decision available on its site is a Feb. 2, 2010, decision by the full commission in a case involving a battery-charging incident Jan. 27, 2006, at Coal River Mining, LLC's Tiny Creek No. 2 Mine, an underground coal mine in Lincoln County, W.Va. Batteries were charged on the ground in a location not treated with a fire suppression agent. No one was injured, and the mining company shut down the area and called MSHA. But the incident caused alarm: "The response to the batteries' overheating was influenced by the recent multi-fatality mine explosion at Sago and fire at Aracoma, which created a sense of urgency as the situation at the Tiny Creek Mine unfolded," the decision notes. The commissioners upheld part of the underlying administrative law judge's ruling in the case but remanded part of it for reconsideration.

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