The new report said that MSHA's internal accountability programs have been successful at identifying agency deficiencies, but that top agency officials have not done enough to eliminate those deficiencies.
At Upper Big Branch, the internal review team blamed MSHA deficiencies mostly on a continued lack of money and staff, a lack of experience among a large body of newly hired inspectors, and turnover among MSHA management in the agency's Southern West Virginia district office.
For example, the internal review report said MSHA did not properly follow up on earlier methane accidents at Upper Big Branch -- in 1997, 2003 and 2004 -- because of a series of changes in district management at the agency's local offices.
And, a trainee inspector who was not yet authorized to do such work alone performed one of the last two inspections of the longwall-mining section where the Upper Big Branch explosion occurred, the internal review report said.
The general types of breakdowns outlined in the report mirror those from nearly a dozen other "internal review" reports published after major coal-mining disasters over the last 20 years, as well as numerous other self-audits by MSHA and outside evaluations by the Department of Labor's Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress.
The 2010 disaster came just four years after a series of coal-mine disasters in 2006 and 2007 that prompted a new federal law, increased funding and staffing for MSHA, and renewed attention to coal-mine safety and health problems. After taking office in January 2009, President Obama put Main -- a longtime United Mine Workers safety director -- in charge of MSHA, but did not ask Congress to continue beefing up mine safety resources, and kept numerous MSHA managers whose tenure included the recent disasters.
Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, led an independent team that investigated Upper Big Branch and concluded that the disaster itself was "proof positive that [MSHA] failed its duty ad the watchdog for coal miners." McAteer said the response so far from regulatory agencies, lawmakers and the industry has not been anywhere near strong enough, considering the "profound failures" that led to the disaster.
"The reports all point to a failure on the part of the company and a failure on the part of federal and state agencies, and yet we can see no remedy out of this failure to enforce the most basic safety standards in the mine," McAteer said. "It's a sad day."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.