Robert Murray
Reuters / Danny Moloshok
Coal boss Robert Murray, probably contemplating how to minimize his company’s latest safety fine.

Back in high school, I had a great strategy for dealing with parking tickets I couldn’t afford to pay: I went down to city hall and challenged them — sometimes with a legitimate excuse, sometimes not (“The two-hour sign was obscured by a flowering cherry tree!”). I had figured out that bureaucrats cared less about the reliability of my sob story than they did about getting on with their day, so often they’d just roll their eyes, reduce the fine, and shoo me out the door.

Turns out the same tactic works for coal companies facing fines for safety infractions. A Cleveland Plain Dealer investigation found that when federal regulators fine mine operators for violating safety standards, those companies “are fighting significant fines as a matter of course and getting them reduced, if not dropped,” which means “clogging up the appeals process and wearing down a system that lacks resources to match the challenge.” You know, just like a privileged teenager exploiting an overburdened traffic court — except with hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention miners’ lives, at stake.

The Plain Dealer reports:

Reviewing [Mine Safety and Health Administration] data dating to 2007, the Plain Dealer examined the agency’s practice of levying large fines and the Ohio mines’ practice of challenging the fines. The newspaper found repeated success for mine owners. Just counting four years in which nearly every case is now resolved — 2007 through 2010 — the government wanted $1.59 million from Murray Energy for citations at its two Ohio underground mines. Murray wound up paying $1.05 million, saving more than $531,000, according to an analysis of the federal data. It did so by seeking negotiations and, if that failed, filing appeals. …

Murray is contesting nearly $1.1 million more for citations issued in 2011, 2012, and early 2013, records show.

That’s the same Murray Energy, by the way, that forced employees to take an unpaid day off to attend a Romney rally last year and pressured them to donate to pro-coal politicians; the same Murray Energy whose Crandall Canyon mine in Utah collapsed in 2007, killing nine people — six miners and three rescue workers. The Murray subsidiaries operating that mine negotiated a proposed $1.6 million fine for the accident down to $1.15 million.

The Plain Dealer writes that this pattern of challenging fines, often getting them reduced by 50 percent or more, “raises questions about how sensible and effective the mine-safety system is.” The MSHA responds that “inspections and citations, regardless of how the fines are resolved, create safer mines.” But the fact that Murray has racked up millions in fines since the Crandall Canyon collapse indicates that the company didn’t exactly get its shit together after that fatal accident.

Despite criticism from Congress for clogging the appeals system, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray “staunchly defends his practices and views, including what he says are increasingly harsh and unnecessary environmental regulation.” The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 — the first major reform to mine safety regulations in 28 years — did substantially toughen penalties for safety violations. But it appears that instead of prompting mining companies to take stricter precautions, the prospect of harsher penalties only encouraged them to automatically challenge all but the most minor citations.

For mine owners, as the Plain Dealer puts it, “violations, like points on a driver’s record, are costly and have severe consequences,” providing incentive to challenge them. Just as your license can be taken away after enough traffic infractions, a mine can be shut down after enough serious safety violations.

The MSHA maintains that its safety system is working, reporting that 2012 saw the lowest ever rate of reported on-the-job injuries for coal miners, and the second-lowest number of deaths: 19.

Still sounds like 19 too many to me.