Surface Mining:

Interior Department and States Could Improve Inspection Programs

RCED-87-40: Published: Dec 29, 1986. Publicly Released: Feb 11, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO provided information on federally approved mine inspection and enforcement programs in four states to determine whether: (1) the states were citing all violations observed during mine inspections; and (2) if the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's (OSMRE) sampling process to select mines for review is appropriate for assessing states' performance in citing mining violations.

GAO found that: (1) the states made most of the required inspections and ensured that mine operators timely corrected cited violations; (2) state inspectors failed to cite 78 of the 129 total violations GAO and federal inspectors observed during visits to 82 sites; (3) 56 percent of the uncited violations included problems with sediment controls, mining outside permit boundaries, improper topsoil handling, and other violations that could cause off-site environmental damage; (4) states did not cite the 78 violations because they missed the violations or disagreed that a violation existed; (5) states did not issue violation notices if problems were not occurring when they followed up; and (6) states' failures to record all violations could affect penalty determinations and permit suspensions or revocations, since OSMRE bases its decisions on an operator's history of violations. GAO also found that federal inspectors: (1) did not determine if the violations they found were also present during the last state inspection; (2) did not attempt to schedule oversight inspections as close to the latest complete state inspection as possible; and (3) were not required to determine the potential environmental impact of observed violations or their likely causes.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSMRE redesigned its inspection report to cite violations observed by OSMRE, and the report was modified to collect information on the seriousness and environmental impact of each violation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all violations of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) performance standards are cited, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director, OSMRE, to determine the reasons why state inspectors are not citing all violations and, based on this information, work with the states to ensure that each violation of SMCRA performance standards is cited.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Interior disagreed with this recommendation. It believes that SMCRA would have to be amended to mandate states to cite violations on the basis of information contained in a 10-day notice. While GAO believes that the OSMRE position is incorrect, after 2.5 years further action is not likely.

    Recommendation: To ensure that all violations of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 performance standards are cited, the Secretary of the Interior should require the Director, OSMRE, to work with the states to develop criteria for state use of OSMRE evidence of violations observed during oversight inspections in issuing notices of violation, which will become part of an operator's violation history.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSMRE modified its sampling approach for the 1987 and subsequent state evaluation years in a manner similar to that proposed by GAO.

    Recommendation: To provide more creditable information on state regulatory authorities' performance in administering their mine inspection programs, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, OSMRE, to modify the OSMRE sampling approach to give primary emphasis to measuring state performance in ensuring compliance with the act. OSMRE should include procedures for timing oversight inspections as close to the time of the last complete state inspection as possible, and then require its inspectors to record whether each observed violation was present at the time of the last complete state inspection, but was not cited by the state.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OSMRE revised its inspection report to include supplemental information on the environmental impacts of violations observed on oversight inspections. Also, the State Annual Evaluation Report has been revised to include such information.

    Recommendation: To provide more creditable information on state regulatory authorities' performance in administering their mine inspection programs, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, OSMRE, to require OSMRE inspectors to record in inspection reports the potential for harm to the environment or public safety, and the causes of violations observed at each site to help demonstrate the overall effectiveness of state inspection programs and identify areas in need of corrective action.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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