Even once the rules were written, the IG said, MSHA tied its own hands by mandating that they could invoke the pattern of violations authority only after enforcement actions had been finalized -- meaning all potential for appeals had been exhausted -- and mine operators had been sent "warning letters.".
Over the next 17 years, the IG said, use of the pattern of violations authority was "decentralized" among MSHA districts and "lacked a consistent, structured approach."
After a series of disasters in 2006, MSHA in 20007 tried to jump start the POV process, with a new emphasis on the program and a new screening criteria for evaluating which mines should be considered for POV status.
But IG investigators found the new criteria has "proven to be complex and unreliable." MSHA declined to pursue POV status for dozens of problem mines for a variety of reasons, from lack of enforcement resources to recent safety improvements and promises of employee training or operator safety audits.
IG investigators also found that MSHA did not really monitor mine operator corrective action plans that companies submitted to try to avoid being put on POV status.
"Since mine operators receive a benefit from submitting a written corrective action plan (i.e., additional time to address safety and health violations), MSHA Needs to assure that the plan is more than a perfunctory exercise and consider whether these plans should be required," the IG report concluded.
The IG review found no problems with the data MSHA uses to evaluate mine performance for POV purposes, but did find that programming problems led to unreliable results when that data was analyzed.
IG investigators also noted that delays in testing dust samples from underground mines kept MSHA from citing dust-control violations at Upper Big Branch until after the deadly explosion, even though the samples were taken in mid-March.
After the IG raised that issue with MSHA, the agency directed lab personnel to complete testing with 19 days of samples being received.
"Although MSHA took prompt action on the concern we raised, 19 days does not convey an appropriate level of urgency for completing tests related to a mine's compliance with a standard for preventing the propagation of coal dust explosions," the IG report said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.