RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to a big, bureaucratic failure with real indications for the people who work in mines. Turns out the federal mine safety agency has not collected millions of dollars in penalties for safety violations in the nation's mines. NPR's weeklong investigative series found that during the time period when mining companies were delinquent in their payments, they committed 130,000 additional violations.
Today, NPR's Howard Berkes examines one last question. Since fines are supposed to deter unsafe practices, what can be done to make delinquent mine owners pay up?
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It seems simple - fail to pay traffic tickets, and you could lose your license. Fail to pay taxes, and you could go to jail. But fail to pay fines for putting mine workers at risk, well, 2,700 mine owners have gotten away with that, most, for years, some, for decades. They owe nearly $70 million.
CELESTE MONFORTON: You have these - this class of mining companies that have failed to pay their debt. And they've continued to have violations that represent hazards to workers.
BERKES: Celeste Monforton is a former federal mine safety official at George Washington University. Most mines pay their fines, but those that don't are more dangerous than the rest. According to NPR's analysis of federal mine delinquency records and Labor Department data on mine violations and injuries, delinquent fines have injury rates that are 50 percent higher. And they reported nearly 4,000 injuries while they were delinquent.
MONFORTON: There has to be a way to address this problem once and for all and as quickly as possible. Are there models in other agencies that, at some point, they used their authority to say, until you pay the penalty, we're going to not approve any of your mining plans?
BERKES: Something like that happens in West Virginia and Kentucky when mining companies failed to pay state penalties for safety or environmental violations. They can lose their state mining permits or licenses. The same thing can happen with violations of federal environmental laws at surface mines. But the federal mine safety agency has no legal authority to shut down a mine because it hasn't paid its safety fines, which angers Congressman George Miller of California, the ranking democrat on the House Labor Committee.
CONGRESSMAN GEORGE MILLER: An owner of a mine can put several hundred or thousand mineworkers into an unsafe position, have them injured, be assessed a fine and then tomorrow, continue work as if nothing happened. And that's what the law is, in effect, doing today.
BERKES: A bill pending in both the House and Senate would automatically shut down mines six months after fines become delinquent. But the bill has no traction says Congressman Miller.
MILLER: Some people see this as a continuation on the war on coal. That somehow if you insisted that people be safe in the workplace, that that would end the coal industry. And now when they're under pressure from natural gas and diminishing use of coal, there's no appetite to change this law. And I'm not even sure a tragic, new accident would change the Congress's attitude on this.
BERKES: Nothing else has worked to force payment of fines, even as mine owners commit more violations and more minors are injured. A few dozen delinquents have been hauled into federal court, but even that gets few results.
NPR found that the government collected just 13 percent of the fines covered by federal court orders and settlement agreements. Those can be difficult to enforce because the structure of some mining companies makes ownership and assets difficult to identify. Today, mine safety Chief Joe Main says he doesn't ignore delinquent fines, but instead targets dangerous mines with other tough and new enforcement.
JOE MAIN: We've overhauled our whole mine enforcement program so mines that's operating today faces a whole different set of enforcement challenges and tools if they decide they're not going to comply with the Mine Act. We do not wait for them to rack up fines before we do something these days like we did in the past.
BERKES: That includes hundreds of extra surprise mine inspections. Mines with persistent patterns of serious violations get even more scrutiny and tougher sanctions. That's effective says Tom Lusk, the top executive at Southern Coal.
TOM LUSK: A mine can't survive on that. In today's world, an operator that's not going to comply with mine health and safety standards because of enforcement efforts is not going to be in business. They don't hesitate to shut an operator down.
BERKES: Actually, they can only shut down mines temporarily. Once violations are fixed, mines reopen. Some may shutdown for good eventually, but they can do a lot of damage in the meantime. In 2006, Roy Middleton and four others died in a coal mine disaster in Kentucky. The mine owners haven't paid a half million dollars in penalties according to federal delinquency records, which frustrates Middleton's daughter Danielle.
DANIELLE MIDDLETON: I feel like the accident itself could've been prevented if some of these fines had been paid for. At a young age, you learn there are consequences to cheating. And it doesn't seem that way in this case.
BERKES: In this case, one of the delinquent mine owners controlled eight other mines. Federal records show those mines had 1,300 more violations, 20 more injuries and $2.4 million in additional delinquent penalties before those mines were closed or sold. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
MARTIN: Our entire series on mine safety is at npr.org. You'll also find a list of the top 10 delinquent mining companies there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.