An audit of the federal system that fines mining companies for unsafe conditions found no evidence that more than $1 billion in mine safety penalties over 18 years deterred unsafe mining practices.
The four-year long audit from the Office of Inspector General of the Labor Department says its analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration accident and violations data "showed no correlation between penalties paid and the safety of mine operations."
The audit was prompted by a 2014 NPR investigation of thousands of mines and mining companies that did find such a connection. Specifically, NPR found that mines that persistently ignored their penalties had injury rates 50 percent higher than mines that paid their fines. In total, NPR examined the safety records of mines that had failed to pay nearly $70 million in penalties, some with delinquent fines that were decades old.
The auditors instead reported data for mining companies, not individual mines, and in a statement to NPR acknowledged taking a different approach with their review.
"We focused on mine operators as they are responsible for the safety of miners and are assigned the financial responsibility for penalties," the OIG's statement explained.
The office did not respond to specific questions NPR submitted and declined a request for an interview.
The audit doesn't say whether the measures of safety and violations applied only after mines or mining companies failed to pay safety fines or while they continued to be delinquent. NPR's analysis of delinquent fines and safety applied only to mines while they were delinquent.
The auditors also measured safety by looking at raw numbers and averages of "serious accidents" and "serious violations," which is not the primary safety metric used by MSHA. The agency instead typically uses "incident" or injury rate, which takes into account the number of injuries that occur in a mine during the hours worked.
This shows that "penalties just aren't high enough to deter bad behavior," says Wes Addington, the executive director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Addington once conducted his own analysis of delinquent mine safety penalties and their impacts on safety.
The audit shows that "violations are just a cost of doing business," Addington adds.
He also calls the audit "superficial" and "poorly designed" because it mixes coal mines with what are called metal and nonmetal mines. "Coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States," Addington says. Including other mines in the analysis "skews the data. They don't have the injuries and violations coal mines have."
The auditors did recommend that MSHA not permit mining companies to operate new mines if they have outstanding penalties at existing operations.
"Without holding mine operators accountable for their safety record or delinquency status prior to commencing operations at a new mine, mine operators have less of an incentive to prevent future safety hazards," the audit says.
MSHA says it does not have the legal authority to deny mine operators the ability to open new mines due to unpaid fines.
The NPR investigation found that mining companies continued to operate multiple mines, and continued to put thousands of miners at risk, even after persistent failure to pay mine safety fines. In one case, the operators of the Kentucky Darby mine amassed nearly $3 million in safety fines after a deadly accident that killed five miners. That includes $500,000 in fines the owners of the mine failed to pay for safety failures that contributed to the tragedy.
In that and many other cases, NPR found that MSHA failed to use some of its authority to force companies to pay and to seek closure of mines that were persistently delinquent.
The auditors found that MSHA has used that authority more often since the NPR investigation in 2014, and noted more aggressive focus on delinquent and unsafe mines in both the Trump and Obama administrations.
The audit said MSHA deserves credit for collecting the vast majority of mine safety fines – roughly 90 percent in the 18 years reviewed.
But the auditors also recommended that MSHA develop ways to measure the effectiveness of penalties. MSHA says that's difficult because fines are "one of many variables" used to make mines safe.
MSHA has recently resisted public disclosure of mining companies that fail to pay penalties. NPR sued MSHA in federal court last year under the Freedom of Information Act after the agency failed to provide its current delinquent mines data. A settlement resulted in the release of that data, which showed that the nation's top delinquent mine owners are companies owned by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and his family.
In a rare move in May, MSHA and the Justice Department sued the coal companies owned by the Justice family for failure to pay $4.7 million in unpaid mine safety fines.