Problems in which MSHA field offices didn't work closely enough with the agency's technical support division were previously outlined in an internal review of the October 2000 Martin County, Ky., slurry spill and an independent report on the August 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster in Utah.
MSHA officials have said that questions about their handling of the previous methane incidents at Upper Big Branch are among the issues about agency performance that are being examined by an MSHA interview review team that has not yet completed its work.
But on Friday, Kline raised questions about the Upper Big Branch internal review in a letter to MSHA noting the departure of the review team's leader, Jack Kuzar, who retired from the agency.
"It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the head of an internal review team to depart in the midst of such an important examination," Kline wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "That such a departure occurred 16 months into the review and as the final report was nearing completion is also troubling."
At the same time, a lawyer for the widows of two miners who died in the January 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Mine continue to raise questions about ties between MSHA employees and Massey mine managers in a federal court lawsuit against the agency.
In appealing the dismissal of that case, lawyer Bruce Stanley notes that MSHA's own internal review at the Aracoma Mine noted the potential for conflict of interest among agency enforcement personnel in Southern West Virginia.
The Aracoma internal review team concluded, among other things, that MSHA efforts at industry-friendly "compliance assistance" may have hampered inspections and enforcement at the Logan County mine prior to the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.
"The internal review team believes that some of the identified deficiencies may have stemmed from the relationship that MSHA developed with the Massey Energy Company representatives in early 2001," the internal review report said.
The report noted MSHA personnel "worked closely" with Massey management to develop miner training programs, but that "using enforcement personnel in this manner ... may have created a conflict of interest that, over time, may have affected the level of scrutiny that MSHA provided."
Stanley argued in a brief to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that MSHA personnel, "may have failed to take appropriate corrective actions or even conduct promised inspections at all because of conflict of interest created by their close relationships with, and lack of independence from, the operator and its managers."
In response, MSHA lawyers wrote that Bragg and Hatfield "died in undeniably tragic circumstances in a mine fire caused by the negligence" of Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co.
"The Mine Act explicitly emphasizes that responsibility for safety is on the mine and the miners themselves, not on MSHA ... MSHA owned no duty of care to plaintiffs' husbands here," MSHA lawyers wrote.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.