WASHINGTON -- Two winters ago, what had been a mediocre safety record at West Virginia's Sago Mine grew dramatically worse. Over 23 months beginning in February 2004, two dozen miners were hurt in a string of accidents, some of them caused by rock falling from the mine ceiling. Federal safety inspectors slapped the mine with citations 273 times.
Despite this record, the price paid by Sago's operators was light. Government regulators never publicly discussed shutting down the mine and never sought criminal sanctions. The biggest fine was $440, about 0.0004 percent of the $110 million net profit reported last year by the mine's owner, International Coal Group Inc., which acquired Sago in November.
Whether the mine's documented safety problems played a role in last Monday's fatal accident is unknown. But Sago's recent history illustrates what mine-safety specialists say is a longstanding flaw in enforcement of federal mining regulations. While inspectors issue a blizzard of paper citations each year, these violations rarely translate into serious penalties, even for the worst offenders, according to government records and interviews with current and former regulators. Large fines are rare, and the most serious sanctions -- such as closing mines -- are almost never used, documents show.
This pattern has been even more pronounced under the Bush administration, which came into office with a promise to forge cooperative ties between regulators and the mining industry. During the last five years, the number of mines referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution has dropped steadily, from 38 in 2000 to 12 last year.
Meanwhile, inspectors who sought to impose large fines on coal companies have seen those penalties whittled down by agency negotiators and administrative law judges. Last year, the operator of a Brookwood, Ala., coal mine, where 13 miners were killed in September 2001, saw its fine reduced from $435,000 to $3,000.
''There are simply not enough incentives for safety built into the regulatory and compensation system," said Emily Spieler, an occupational safety expert and dean of Northeastern University's School of Law. ''Pressure on regulatory agencies to allow unsafe businesses to operate is enormous, and the incentives to comply with regulations are small if the regulatory agency does not issue large fines."
The chief enforcer of federal mining laws, the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, defends its performance, pointing to a steady decline in the number of deaths and injuries in coal mines in recent years. Some of the decline has been attributed to increased mechanization, though both industry and union officials acknowledge improvements in safety practices.
''While MSHA has also pursued cooperative health and safety partnerships with labor unions, mine operators, and industry associations, it has consistently backed up those compliance assistance efforts with strong enforcement against unsafe operators," agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a prepared statement.
The agency contends that its oversight is at least as robust as that of previous administrations, but the record is mixed. The total number of hours spent by inspectors inside coal mines has gone up, but the number of citations issued annually is down about 20 percent from a decade ago. The percentage of violations classified by inspectors as serious -- ''significant and substantial," in agency jargon -- has also declined.
Comparisons with previous administrations are complex, because mining methods have changed and the number of underground mines has steadily decreased. But agency critics, including several former MSHA officials, say that relatively light sanctions, coupled with the Bush administration's more collegial approach to regulation, make it harder for inspectors to force noncompliant companies to change.
''There was a dramatic shift in MSHA's philosophy in 2001, with a new emphasis on cooperation by the enforcers," said J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the agency under the Clinton administration, ''and it came at a cost of less enforcement of the statute."
At the Sago Mine, the increase in safety violations in early 2004 quickly drew the attention of agency inspectors. During the two years that followed, regulators increased their oversight, writing citations for problems ranging from falling rocks to excessive levels of flammable coal dust.