In Brief | Nation & World 3-31-13


Labor Department to lay off dozens of lawyers working on mine safety cases

WASHINGTON — As the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster approaches, 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.

“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.

Syrian rebels storm strategic neighborhood in Aleppo

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels pushed into a strategic neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo after days of heavy clashes, seizing control of at least part of the hilltop district and killing a pro-government cleric captured in the fighting, activists and state media said Saturday.

There were conflicting reports about the scale of the advance into the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood by rebel forces battling to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the gains marked the biggest shift in the front lines in the embattled city in months.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a key battleground in the country’s civil war since rebels launched an offensive there in July, seizing several districts before the fighting largely settled into a bloody stalemate.

The Aleppo Media Center opposition group and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels seized full control of Sheikh Maqsoud late Friday.

By wire sources