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MSHA still lags on accountability, audit finds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration has made improvements, but federal mine safety regulators still fall short in fixing inspection and enforcement problems identified repeatedly as major problems, according to a new report from the Labor Department's inspector general.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials addressed nearly all of the recommendations of a similar audit five years ago that criticized an internal accountability office set up to monitor agency performance.

But MSHA has not successfully remedied inspection lapses and inadequate enforcement actions, problems that have been highlighted over and over following major mining disasters in 2006, 2007 and 2010, according to the new IG report.

"MSHA continues to face challenges in administering a successful accountability program," said the IG report, dated last week and made public on Tuesday.

In one instance, IG investigators found that an MSHA district reported it had corrected more than a dozen problems that it actually had not fixed. The problems included at least five "high risk deficiencies" such as designating only half as many violations as "significant and substantial" as it should have, ensuring mine operators fixed safety problems within the required timeframe, and scheduling more frequent inspections at mines with high levels of explosive methane.

"The agency should be commended for addressing many of the concerns raised in the inspector general's earlier audit, but today's report reveals problems continue to plague oversight of the agency's enforcement activities," said House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn. "MSHA must establish a process that identifies enforcement weaknesses and ensures they are effectively addressed."

Last year, Kline asked for the IG review following Charleston Gazette reports about previously secret MSHA audits that detailed serious enforcement lapses, including incomplete inspections and inadequate enforcement actions. MSHA had quietly told Congress about the audits just two weeks before 29 miners were killed in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

The audit findings mirrored those of numerous MSHA internal reviews conducted after major mining accidents over the last two decades, as well as repeated criticism from the IG and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

As the new IG report notes, similar oversights by MSHA were found after Upper Big Branch in an internal MSHA review and an examination of that internal review by a panel appointed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"Because MSHA management did not conduct rigorous root-cause analysis, the same deficiencies were identified on subsequent accountability reviews," the new IG report said.

In a response to the IG report, MSHA chief Joe Main took issue with a statement where IG investigators said, "By not providing adequate oversight of enforcement activities, MSHA potentially increases the risk that unsafe working conditions in mines will not be detected."

Main said that, "management oversight of accountability review activities, while very important, must be viewed within the context of the requirements in the Mine Act.

"It is important to note that Congress gave mine operators the primary responsibility to prevent unsafe working conditions and practices in mines," Main wrote. "MSHA is concerned that your description of the agency's oversight of enforcement activities obscures the statutory and regulatory responsibilities that mine operators have to address unsafe working conditions in mines."

In a reply, the IG wrote that, "Our statement and conclusion are based on the requirements of the Mine Act that describe MSHA's roles and responsibilities in setting safety and health standards, identifying instances of noncompliance and compelling mine operators to take timely corrective actions. These are integral components of the overall system for providing miners with a safe and healthy work environment."

In a prepared statement, Kline said of this issue, "While mine operators maintain primary responsibility for ensuring a safe workplace, MSHA has an obligation to enforce the law. Any attempt to downplay the critical role of effective enforcement policies in mine safety is a disservice to miners and their families."

A separate IG report, also made public this week, gave MSHA good marks for timely and adequate reviews of mine operator plans for providing safety training for miners. IG investigators said they found only "minor deficiencies" that they did not consider to be "indications of a systemic problem."

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


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