Federal regulators are behind schedule this year to complete required quarterly inspections at more than 60 percent of Southern West Virginia's underground coal mines, government records show.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration managers deliberately stopped some of the required inspections in the face of budget and staffing shortages, MSHA officials revealed this week.
MSHA replaced the complete mine reviews with "enhanced spot inspections" that did not cover entire operations, as required by law.
Last week, Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, halted the program.
"While this practice may have been well-intentioned, it is unacceptable," Stickler said in an internal memo.
"Spot inspections will continue to serve an important role in MSHA's enforcement efforts," Stickler wrote in the Sept. 18 memo. "However, they must be used to supplement, not replace, regular inspections."
Stickler acted after two Gazette reports about MSHA missing required quarterly inspections at mines in Mingo and Logan counties where workers were killed earlier this month. Stickler also stepped in after harsh criticism from Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, both D-W.Va.
But questions remain about the agency's actions: Who came up with and approved the plan to replace complete mine safety reviews with spot inspections? What kinds of safety problems might the program have led inspectors to miss? And why didn't Labor Secretary Elaine Chao seek more funding and staff to respond to earlier evidence that MSHA's Southern West Virginia district was dangerously understaffed?
"This most recent failure by the Department of Labor is either gross negligence, or a willful disregard for the requirements of the Mine Act," Byrd said last week.
"Either way, it contradicts the Department's repeated assertions that it has requested sufficient funding and personnel to ensure the safety of our nation's coal miners," Byrd said. "I want to know when MSHA learned that these inspections were not occurring, and why it took so long to remedy the problem."
In an e-mail response to questions, MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci called the inspection switch an "initiative to use enhanced spot inspections in lieu of select regular inspections."
The program was instituted only in the agency's District 4, based in Mount Hope, "to ensure MSHA's presence at every mine, every quarter."
Faraci said MSHA believes it is behind schedule on 30 percent of mandated inspections in District 4, which covers West Virginia's southern coalfields.
But a review of agency data shows the problem is more serious. Inspectors are behind schedule in completing regular quarterly inspections for at least 74 of the district's 122 underground coal mines currently listed as active, MSHA records show.
"That's an amazing number," said Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration. "It is just astounding that they would let this happen."
In written responses, MSHA said the inspection policy was started on Oct. 1, 2006, and approved by Kevin Stricklin, who had just recently taken over as the agency's administrator for coal mine health and safety.
However, MSHA records indicate the switch to spot inspections from regular reviews started at some mines much earlier in 2006.
And Jesse Cole, who was district manager from July 2004 through August 2006, said it was previously common practice to count spot inspections toward regular reviews. "That is nothing new," Cole said.
David Dye, who was acting MSHA chief from November 2004 until Stickler took over in mid-October 2006, said he never approved such a policy.
Ray McKinney, who was MSHA administrator for coal prior to Stricklin, did not return a phone call last week.
Since 1969, federal regulators have been required to inspect all underground mines in their entirety at least four times per year. For years, MSHA has interpreted that to mean complete regular inspections of all underground mines at least once per quarter.
Coal industry officials have long objected to that requirement, and have continued a lobbying effort to get it changed.
President George W. Bush's first MSHA chief, Dave Lauriski, embraced this approach. Lauriski proposed to write a regulation for "focused inspections" at mines with safety lapses. Lauriski hired a consultant, who prepared a report supporting the idea.