The idea behind compliance assistance follows the popular
adage that you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration instituted
the policy under former-director Dave Lauriski, and it involved inspectors
entering mines not as inspectors, but as “compliance assistance” officers. They
wouldn’t write up violations and issue citations, but instead point out issues to
“It’s sort of a way of letting the operator violate the law
without any repercussions,” says Dennis O’Dell, the Health and Safety director
of the United Mine Workers.
MSHA has an education unit that trains mine operators how to comply with the
law, but the Compliance Assistance Program (CAP) instituted under Lauriski
was different because it involved inspectors.
Minness Justice worked for MSHA for 20 years, before
losing his job after the fire at Aracoma’s Alma No. 1 Mine. He saw CAPs
implemented, and says many of his fellow inspectors were recruited for the
“It’s like giving a state policeman his uniform and taking
his gun and expecting him to go out there and do his job,” he said. “That’s basically
what it boiled down to.”
This isn’t to say that the concept of teaching operators how
to follow the law is flawed.
Celeste Monforton says some form of compliance assistance
has its place, to help operators learn about and adapt to new rules. She’s a
professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University,
and is serving on a team investigating the Upper Big Branch disaster for the
“I’m not necessarily someone who believes that if you’ve had
a regulation on the books for five years or 20 years that compliance
assistance should be offered,” she said.
“Because my expectation would be if
you’re an employer and you’re going to be working in that industry, it’s your
responsibility when you start out to know what the laws are and to comply with
There’s no mention of “compliance assistance” in the Mine Act. The Act specifically states that inspectors have to cite violations when
they observe them.
Current MSHA head Joe Main says the agency has officially
discontinued the program.
“There had been some activity where people believed that
those inspection activities at times were modified to be compliance assistance
activities,” Main said.
“Under my watch, it doesn’t
happen and it’s not going to happen. We’re going to use the enforcement folks
to carry out their responsibilities under the Mine Act. So when they’re at the
mine, completing inspections at the mines, they’re going to be there with full
authority to write up any violations they observe.”
MSHA still displays a “compliance assistance” page
prominently on its website, and the agency’s education unit conducts trainings.
But it's separate from the inspection unit, and each have different job
Former MSHA inspector Minness Justice isn’t so sure. Since the explosion at
Upper Big Branch, he’s poured over the mine’s safety record. A citation issued in
January shows Upper Big Branch had high concentrations of float coal dust,
which could contribute to an explosion.
But the inspector assessed only a minor penalty.
“And all the citations that they wrote and how they were
written, which was really horrible, these citations were kind of written like
back under the days when we had the CAPs program,” he said.
“They would write
them, but there were no teeth involved in them. These citations that we went
over are just really horrible, horrible, unbelievable. No inspector in his
right mind would write these citations and not make them a serious citation.”
Dennis O’Dell of the United Mine Workers says it’s possible
these compliance assistance activities are still going on, even though the
official word says otherwise. He says instituting new rules under a new administration
isn’t a seamless process.
“It’s a very difficult chore,” he said. “Because a whole new
administration, whole new policies come in and you have to almost retrain
inspectors after what they’ve been doing for the last eight years, now things
have changed in a different direction.”
MSHA’s internal investigation of the Aracoma, Sago and Darby
mine disasters in 2006 found that an emphasis on “compliance assistance” could
have played a role in those deadly explosions. The reports say the policy contributed
to a lax regulatory attitude.