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Labor Department disbands mine safety legal teams

WASHINGTON — As the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster passes, legal teams assembled by the Labor Department to force mine operators to improve safety are being largely disbanded.

The move is being heavily criticized by some members of Congress, the miners union, and families of the 29 Upper Big Branch miners who were killed in the April 5, 2010, explosion.

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‘‘They should have made the cuts somewhere else. This was to make mines safer,’’ said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary ‘‘Spanky’’ Wayne died at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia. ‘‘Here we are, and it is about to be the third anniversary. . . . We thought something good might come out of it. This is wrong.’’

After the explosion, legal teams were hired to deal with a backlog of contested mine safety citations. The number of unresolved appeals had grown to 16,600, and Massey Energy, then owner of Upper Big Branch, had the highest contest rate of any coal mine in the nation.

By contesting citations from the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, mine owners were able to avoid racking up high numbers of serious violations that would place them in the agency’s ‘‘pattern of violation’’ program. There they would be more closely scrutinized, and their operations could be restricted or even shut down.

And as long as citations are under appeal, the agency cannot issue the heavier fines allowed under the law for repeated violations of the same safety hazard.

In the five years leading up to the explosion, Massey Energy had received 1,422 citations for safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine and was assessed $1.89 million in penalties. Massey, which has since been sold, was contesting 25 percent of the citations at the time of the explosion.

But now two of the five offices of the legal effort are being shut, and 30 of the 74 lawyers hired for the effort will be laid off by June 1. The Labor Department said the program was intended to be temporary and its shutdown has been accelerated by budget cuts.

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