MSHA has room to improve, audit says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has made important strides in the last year, but still has plenty of room to improve, according to a new government audit issued just before Friday's third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
Labor Department Office of Inspector General investigators praised MSHA for "significant progress" implementing recommendations of an "internal review" of agency actions prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.
As of early February, MSHA had implemented 56 of the review's recommendations, but still had 44 left -- and had not even set due dates for some of those changes.
In a response, MSHA chief Joe Main said his agency "cannot reasonably set due dates" for recommendations that involve funding contingencies or rulemaking efforts that require White House approval. IG officials did not agree.
"While the OIG understands the constraints under which the agency operates, we believe MSHA must set target dates for engaging responsible officials to take such actions as rulemaking, research, legal reviews, and funding contingencies," IG investigators said in their report.
In its report, the IG also faulted MSHA for rejecting some recommendations from a separate, independent panel that examined the agency's internal review of enforcement of mine safety rules at Upper Big Branch.
"Our review found that although MSHA was planning to implement much of what was recommended in the Independent Panel's report, it was not planning to implement all of the recommendations, and we believed that MSHA had been somewhat slow to engage the panel in order to clarify the meaning and underlying intent of the report's recommendations," the IG report said. "However, based on this observation during our audit, MSHA did engage the panel to discuss and clarify certain recommendations."
The 115-page IG report, made public Tuesday, examined MSHA's response to an internal review that found a wide variety of agency failings in enforcement of mine safety rules prior to the Upper Big Branch explosion. Among other things, the internal review found MSHA inspectors failed to identify dangerous accumulations of explosive coal dust, curtailed harsher enforcement actions, and did not conduct legally mandated mine inspections prior to the April 2010 disaster.
The IG also examined MSHA's response to date to a report by a four-person panel appointed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to examine MSHA's actions. The panel concluded that MSHA likely could have prevented the disaster if agency officials have properly enforced ventilation standards and coal-dust limits.
Both the internal review and the independent panel report were issued a little more than a year ago, in March 2012.
In a separate, 39-page report also made public Tuesday, the IG concluded that MSHA has improved its enforcement of key standards meant to prevent roof falls at underground coal mines. The report is a follow-up review to a 2008 study that examined MSHA's performance at Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon Mine, where six miners and three rescue workers were killed in August 2007.
"The OIG found that MSHA's processes for reviewing, approving, and overseeing coal mine roof control plans have improved since our 2008 report because MSHA has developed guidance and checklists for reviewing and approving roof control plans, performed roof control plan reviews more frequently and undertook an effort to re-examine all roof control plans in effect at the time of the 2008 audit, issued policy regarding non-rescue activities and personnel on site during active rescue operations, and established a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Management to ensure information on mine conditions is shared," the IG report said.
But, IG investigators also found that some MSHA districts still operated under incomplete roof control plan review procedures, some district managers did not document the reasons for plan decisions, and MSHA enforcement personnel monitoring roof-control activities lacked required information to do that job.
MSHA responded by saying the agency "has significantly improved" its roof-control oversight, with special efforts focused on training for inspectors and roof-control specialists within the agency.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.