CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four years ago, Ray McKinney, then the nation's top coal-mine regulator, had scheduled a high-level meeting with officials from International Coal Group. At the meeting, set for the first week of January 2006, McKinney, then the coal administrator at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, planned to confront ICG about growing safety problems at the company's mines.
The meeting never happened. Early on the morning of Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through ICG's Sago Mine in Upshur County, killing 12 miners. Investigators later determined MSHA had not done nearly enough to prevent the disaster.
Last Monday, McKinney's successor, Kevin Stricklin, was on his way to Kentucky for a high-level meeting with Massey Energy officials about safety troubles at the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant's operations.
That meeting never happened either. On his way to Kentucky, Stricklin got word that Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County had blown up -- killing 29 miners in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
In the wake of last week's deaths and as investigations begin, at least some of the focus will turn to MSHA, a long-troubled agency that has struggled to recover from Bush administration budget cuts, a focus toward industry friendly "compliance assistance" over tough enforcement, and a rough-and-tumble industry that frequently bucks regulators.
Passage of landmark mine safety laws in 1969 and 1977, along with creation of MSHA with its mandatory inspections and long lists of safety standards, has dramatically cut mining injuries and deaths.
But the nation's coalfields still suffer periodic fires, explosions or mine floods that can stomp out a dozen or more lives in an instant. And after each of the major incidents over the last 20 years, investigators have found that MSHA did not do enough beforehand to prevent the deaths, according to a review of agency records and outside audit reports.
Federal regulators have frequently overlooked major violations of safety rules intended to protect miners. They have declined to take harsh enough enforcement action or ensure that problems were quickly fixed. Agency supervisors have not trained inspectors or made MSHA requirements clear to them. MSHA has not always written additional rules to protect against newly discovered mining hazards.
"We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the mine operation always has the primary responsibility for the safety of its mine," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety expert and former MSHA staffer. "However, MSHA has an important role to play in ensuring safety as well. And frequently, when a disaster occurs, failures on the part of MSHA and/or the state enforcement agency have also contributed to the cause of the disaster."
Questions already have been raised about whether MSHA took strong enough action at the Upper Big Branch Mine, given increasing violations and safety problems at the mine. Officials of the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, have promised some sort of review of the agency's enforcement actions at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Details of that review have not yet been announced, but MSHA officials last week had already begun defending their actions at the Massey mine.
"We issued citations for every hazard we identified," said Greg Wagner, deputy assistant labor secretary for MSHA. "We held the operator accountable for correcting the problems that were cited."
History, though, shows that MSHA has not always done all it could to prevent mine disasters and other mining deaths:
After the disaster, investigators found that federal inspectors repeatedly allowed Pyro Mining to overlook major safety problems. MSHA inspectors did not notice when company officials missed hazards during required pre-shift safety checks.
After the disaster, MSHA officials found that their own inspectors had again missed problems with the company's safety checks.