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A first: MSHA completes required inspections

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - For the first time ever, mine safety authorities have completed all of the quarterly inspections of underground coal mines that are required by a nearly 40-year-old federal law.

The U.S. Department of Labor praised the "unprecedented" success and said it was the result of an "aggressive new program" launched by the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"Miners are safer today due to the success of this program," said Richard Stickler, acting assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA.

But MSHA critics were not impressed.

"It's sad that MSHA feels like it has to put out a press release to announce it performed its statutorily required tasks," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.

In October 2007, Stickler launched his "100 Percent Plan," after The Charleston Gazette revealed that MSHA was far behind on meeting its quarterly inspection requirements at underground mines across Southern West Virginia.

Under the 1969 federal mine safety law, government agents are required to inspect every underground coal mine in the nation "in its entirety" at least four times each year.

MSHA never met the requirement in the 31 years since it was formed in 1977. But agency officials frequently touted a success rate in the high 90-percent range.

Then, in September 2007, the Gazette found that MSHA missed required quarterly inspections at two mines were workers were killed, and later that the problem was more widespread, affecting nearly two-thirds of the mines in Southern West Virginia.

MSHA officials conceded at the time that they deliberately stopped doing complete inspections of all underground mines because of budget and staffing shortfalls created by Bush administration funding cuts.

Later, a labor department Inspector General's report confirmed the problem, and found that MSHA reduced the number of inspectors in Southern West Virginia, even as coal production in the region increased.

Under pressure from Congress and mine safety advocates - and with money provided through help from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., - MSHA has hired more than 360 new coal enforcement personnel. Agency officials have also used overtime and temporary transfers of inspectors and supervisors to meet the inspection requirements during the financial year that ended Sept. 30.

Bruce Watzman, a vice president at the National Mining Association, praised the MSHA achievement, but said industry officials are concerned that meeting inspection requirements "is stretching the resource limits of the agency."

In the past, industry lobbyists have urged MSHA and lawmakers to allow less frequent inspections for mines with good safety records or to implement "focused inspections" that allow MSHA to be more flexible with its resources.

"We do not believe that the statutory '4s and 2s' should be revisited by the Congress," Watzman said in an e-mail message.

"Rather, we think an open and honest discussion about how inspections are conducted is warranted so that they can be achieved efficiently and effectively."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com

or 304-348-1702.


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