CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The ranking Republican on the Senate Labor Committee questioned Wednesday whether vacancies in senior management positions at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration led to lax enforcement prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., noted recent Inspector General reports on MSHA that pointed to poor training of inspectors and incomplete enforcement of the "pattern of violations" program aimed at renegade mine operators.
Enzi asked Solis to ensure that members of an MSHA internal review team "consider whether any of these deficiencies may have played a role in MSHA's inability to detect or prevent the problems that led to the tragedy at Upper Big Branch.
"The apparent deficiencies with training, enforcement and filling positions also leads me to be concerned about MSHA's overall priorities," Enzi said in his letter to Solis.
After a Senate committee hearing in late April, Enzi asked MSHA for more information about vacancies within the top ranks of the agency's Coal Safety and Health Division.
MSHA responded that at least six senior positions had been vacant for well over a year or were staffed by acting personnel. Those included the deputy administrator and the accident investigation division supervisor.
"These positions exist so that the Department is able to provide critically important leadership, support and oversight of its field inspection personnel," Enzi said in his letter to Solis. "While I understand that sometimes it takes time to recruit qualified candidates for important positions, the long period without any apparent attempt to fill these positions also concerns me."