More recently, internal reviews by MSHA of its own actions at the Sago, Aracoma and Darby mine disasters in 2006 in West Virginia and Kentucky criticized the agency for declining to take serious enforcement actions and writing weak regulations, as well as cutting staff and putting an emphasis on "compliance assistance."
Then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler said those three internal reviews were "deeply disturbing" and "show an unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight that will not be tolerated."
An independent report commissioned by then-Labor Secretary Elaine Chao on MSHA's performance at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine, where nine workers died in an August 2007 mine wall collapse, was even pointed in its criticisms of the Bush policies.
"This new direction resulted in such an overwhelming number of different special emphasis programs, compliance assistance programs, and initiatives that an enormous amount of the inspectors' focus was diverted away from completion of regular inspections," the Crandall Canyon report said. "Although these compliance activities certainly have value and can provide a positive impact on the coal industry, MSHA does not possess the staffing or funding to effectively conduct mandated inspections along with a multitude of additional activities."
In Southern West Virginia, budget and staffing cuts at MSHA, combined with a spike in mine production, prompted federal officials to fall dangerously behind on their legal mandate to conduct complete inspections of all underground coal mines once every quarter.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., responded by pushing Congress to increase MSHA's budget for coal enforcement from $117 million in 2006 to $159 this year, a 36 percent increase. MSHA has hired 444 new coal enforcement staff, including 119 in West Virginia.
Byrd said Friday that he would "continue to examine the funding needs of MSHA as this investigation moves forward."
Just days before the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, a Labor Department Inspector General's audit found that MSHA was not ensuring that its inspectors were adequately trained.
"We now know that even with increased funding, we have hundreds of inspectors who are not sufficiently trained, an inspection process that creates bottlenecks putting more miners at risk and a massive problem that at its core means MSHA can bury a faulty company with mountains of paperwork while the company can continue questionable mining practices," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
"It falls on both the mining company and the regulatory agency to make sure that a mine is safe and in this instance both failed," Capito said in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "I ask that as we move forward, we take a long hard look at the relationship of mine operators and MSHA and how we could have prevented this disaster."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.