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Report details MSHA lapses prior to disaster

Read the report here.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety regulators quietly warned lawmakers just two weeks before the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster about serious enforcement lapses, including incomplete inspections and inadequate enforcement actions, according to a previously unpublished report to Congress.

On March 25, 2010, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration submitted a mandated report to the Senate Appropriations Committee on the activities of MSHA's internal Office of Accountability.

Over the previous two years, according to the report, MSHA auditors from the agency's accountability office found:

 

  • Inspectors in 20 of 25 field offices reviewed did not properly evaluate the gravity and negligence of mine operator safety and health violations.
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  • Supervisors in 21 of those 25 field offices did not perform in-depth reviews to ensure that inspectors took appropriate enforcement actions in accordance with MSHA policies.
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  • MSHA officials in 15 of the 25 field offices audited did not adequately document inspections so that any enforcement actions taken would stand up in court.
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  • Inspectors in four of the field offices did not complete mandatory spot inspections for mines that generated large amounts of explosive methane gas.
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  • At an unspecified number of field offices, there was a "lack of comprehensive inspections of all areas of the mining operation" and inappropriate "levels of enforcement issuances."
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    The findings mirror those of numerous MSHA internal reviews conducted after major mining disasters over the last 20 years, as well as repeated criticism from the Labor Department Inspector General and the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office.

    MSHA said in the report that the accountability office reviews focused on field offices where agency officials believed there were existing problems. "Therefore, MSHA does not believe that these findings are an indication of a systematic problem across the 92 field offices" but "an expected result of successful targeting of audits to potential problem areas," the report said.

    The MSHA report -- just five pages long -- did not list the field offices that were audited or those where problems were found. And MSHA does not post individual audit reports by the accountability office on its website.

    In response to a Gazette request for the individual audits, MSHA said it would take more than 30 days to provide them because agency officials would "need to consult with two or more agency components" to gather the material.

    MSHA officials also refused to release a copy of their report to the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying the document could only be made public by Congress.

    Then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler created the accountability office in June 2007, in response to scathing internal reviews about MSHA's performance prior to disasters the previous year at the Sago, Aracoma and Darby mines. The Labor Department IG had also harshly criticized MSHA for its lack of a robust internal accountability program.

    Two years ago, in response to a Gazette public records request, MSHA provided copies of the first three audits conducted by the accountability office. The reports, examining inspections of specific mines in Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio, found problems similar to those documented in the March 2010 report to Congress.

    The report from Kentucky examined MSHA's performance inspecting Alliance Resource's Dotiki Mine in Hopkins County, Ky.

    That Dotiki audit, conducted in mid-February 2008, was to focus on a "high incidence" of roof falls and injuries related to mine roof problems. There had been a dozen roof falls at the operation in the three months prior to the audit.

    MSHA auditors reported that the mine operator had been "proactive" in dealing with roof-related accidents. But in examining the performance of MSHA inspectors, agency auditor concluded that "the level of enforcement and determination of negligence do not appear consistent with the nature and number of violations cited. While the number of violations was climbing, there was no increase in the level of enforcement, auditors found.

    "The audit team recommends the district consider an increased level of enforcement regarding repetitive violations," the audit report said.

    Over the next two years, MSHA records document at least 50 roof falls at Dotiki, including one on April 28, 2010, that killed miners Michael W. Carter and Justin W. Travis.

    Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, quizzed MSHA officials about the accountability office in follow-up inquiries made in writing after a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on May 20, 2010, six weeks after 29 miners died in the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine. Harkin's questions and MSHA's answers were only recently made public, when a full transcript of the hearing was published earlier this year.

    In response to a request for a general update on the office's work, MSHA referred Harkin to the report agency officials had already provided to the committee back on March 25, 2010.

    MSHA said in the report that the office had conducted 24 audits in 2009 and had completed six so far in 2010. MSHA said it planned to spend $600,000 on the office during the 2010 budget year, but was "currently evaluating the restructuring" of the office "to assure that targeted areas are effectively audited."

    In its budget proposal to Congress, made public on Feb. 14, the Labor Department did not outline any new plans for the MSHA accountability office. On Wednesday, MSHA officials declined to respond to questions about future plans for the accountability office.

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


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