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Senator questions unfilled MSHA posts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee questioned Wednesday whether vacancies in senior management positions at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration led to lax enforcement prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., noted recent Inspector General reports on MSHA that pointed to poor training of inspectors and incomplete enforcement of the "pattern of violations" program aimed at renegade mine operators.

Enzi asked Solis to ensure that members of an MSHA internal review team "consider whether any of these deficiencies may have played a role in MSHA's inability to detect or prevent the problems that led to the tragedy at Upper Big Branch.

"The apparent deficiencies with training, enforcement and filling positions also leads me to be concerned about MSHA's overall priorities," Enzi said in his letter to Solis.

After a Senate committee hearing in late April, Enzi asked MSHA for more information about vacancies within the top ranks of the agency's Coal Safety and Health Division.

MSHA responded that at least six senior positions had been vacant for well over a year or were staffed by acting personnel. Those included the deputy administrator and the accident investigation division supervisor.

"These positions exist so that the Department is able to provide critically important leadership, support and oversight of its field inspection personnel," Enzi said in his letter to Solis. "While I understand that sometimes it takes time to recruit qualified candidates for important positions, the long period without any apparent attempt to fill these positions also concerns me."

According to Enzi, the deputy position for coal mine safety was only posted for potential applicants on May 3, 2010, despite being open since November 2008. The accident investigation position still had not been posted, despite being empty since August 2008.

"We welcome the internal review team's scrutiny of the events that led up to the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine," said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for MSHA.

MSHA chief Joe Main was confirmed by the Senate in October after being nominated to the post by President Obama in July. Main was working for the labor department as a consultant between the time he was nominated and his confirmation.

Less than a week before the April 5 Upper Big Branch explosion, the labor department's IG issued a report that outlined major weaknesses in MSHA's training of its inspectors. Then last week, the IG revealed that MSHA had set limits on its reviews of troubled mining operators for possible tougher enforcement because of "resource limitations" that MSHA officials had not told Congress about.

Main and other MSHA officials have declined requests for interviews about the pattern-of-violations problems or the IG report.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Main blamed the cuts in MSHA's pattern-of-violations enforcement on "career leadership at MSHA ... following the existing policies in place prior to my arrival at MSHA."

"I do not agree with these policies," Main said. "Going forward, decisions about potential POV and POV enforcement actions will be based solely on what is best for the safety and health of the miners, within legal and regulatory constraints."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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