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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety inspectors did not conduct adequate reviews of coal-mining operations and failed to step up enforcement actions against mines that routinely violated the law, according to a series of internal audits made public late Friday.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration managers did not properly supervise or train inspectors, and MSHA officials did not do enough to look critically at their own actions and improve agency performance, according to the audits.
More than 50 audits examining MSHA field offices from Alabama to Utah detail a variety of troubling glimpses into an agency that's again come under increasing scrutiny following last April's explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Auditors who visited MSHA's field office in Norton, Va., for example, found that inspectors often did not catch safety problems related to active conveyor belts. They also overlooked delays by a mine operator in keeping emergency-escape equipment properly placed as mining activities progressed underground.
Reviewers who visited an MSHA office in Franklin, Tenn., concluded that agency officials there didn't perform "complete and thorough" inspections or force a mine operator to fix long-standing safety hazards.
Also, at MSHA's field office in Harlan County, Ky., auditors discovered that spot inspections of especially dangerous mines were not performed on the legally required schedule. Inspectors in the office did not issue enforcement actions that matched the problems outlined in their own inspection notes, auditors found.
"Evaluations of gravity, negligence, number of persons affected and the level of enforcement do not always appear consistent with inspection notes, the narrative portion of the citation, or MSHA policy," the January 2010 audit said.
Audits of MSHA field offices in Morgantown, Pineville and Summersville found similar problems.
MSHA released the audits under pressure from Republican members of Congress, following an early March report in The Charleston Gazette that revealed the previously secret findings of an audit summary provided to a U.S. Senate committee less than two weeks before the Upper Big Branch disaster.
That audit summary, though, detailed only the results of 30 audit reports performed through Dec. 31, 2009. MSHA on Friday disclosed more than 20 other audits, including many that were not addressed in the earlier summary.