Read the report here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration likely could have prevented the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster if agency officials had properly enforced ventilation standards and coal-dust limits, a new review by a government-sponsored panel has concluded.
A four-person panel appointed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that the disaster was not likely to have occurred if MSHA had not missed ventilation problems and a build-up of explosive coal dust.
The NIOSH panel found that even MSHA inspectors did not understand important mine safety rules and that top agency officials were unaware that MSHA missed inspections and overlooked violations as safety problems worsened at Upper Big Branch prior to the disaster.
"If MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances -- and possibly could have prevented -- the UBB explosion," the NIOSH panel said in its 26-page report.
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County, ranking the incident as the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
The NIOSH panel report was provided to MSHA officials Thursday. The Gazette-Mail obtained a copy and posted it online Friday afternoon. By early Friday evening, MSHA had posted a copy of it on its website, and issued a statement from MSHA chief Joe Main.
"MSHA is committed to rooting out and addressing critical issues within the agency head-on, and agrees more needs to be done to ensure full and effective enforcement of the Mine Act," Main said in the statement. "Under the Mine Act, Congress gave mine operators responsibility for running safe mines. Four investigations into the explosion all show that Massey Energy did not live up to that charge.
"Recent testimony confirmed that mine management routinely used illegal tactics to conceal violations from inspectors," the statement said. "MSHA cannot keep miners safe alone -- mine operators must commit themselves to safety and health."
House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said he intends to question Main about the NIOSH panel report during a committee hearing Tuesday in Washington.
"NIOSH presents yet another disturbing picture of MSHA's failure to enforce the law at Upper Big Branch," Kline said Friday evening. "Inspectors missed opportunities to address violations of the law and may have been able to prevent the disaster before it happened."
Just two weeks after the disaster, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asked NIOSH Director John Howard to appoint a panel of experts to examine MSHA's internal review of agency enforcement actions at Upper Big Branch prior to the disaster. Solis said at the time that her goal was to ensure the "transparency and accountability" of MSHA's review of itself.
Howard appointed Jeffrey Koehler, director of NIOSH's mine-safety research programs, to lead the panel. Other members included retired NIOSH staffers Lewis Wade and Michael Sapko, and Stanford Law School professor Alison Morantz.
In its report, the MSHA internal review group repeated the agency's accident investigation team's conclusion that serious, repeated and widespread safety violations by Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary led to the disaster.