U.S. Mine Agency Admits Shortcomings, Vows Safety Steps

By | July 5, 2007

Federal inspectors missed obvious problems and failed to follow procedures before three high-profile accidents that killed 19 men at underground coal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky last year, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

An internal accountability office will be created along with numerous other steps to make sure such lapses are not repeated, the agency said.

The moves follow reviews of MSHA’s actions before the Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 men in northern West Virginia on Jan. 2, 2006, a conveyer belt fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in southern West Virginia 17 days later and an explosion that killed five more miners at the Darby Mine in Kentucky on May 20, 2006.

Those accidents prompted sweeping changes to the nation’s coal mining laws last year.

The agency also has asked the Department of Labor to investigate potential misconduct by MSHA inspectors. The agency reported finding several instances of questionable conduct by inspectors assigned to the Alma mine, which is owned by Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co.

“MSHA’s internal review teams identified a number of deficiencies in our enforcement programs, which I found deeply disturbing,” director Richard Stickler said. Creating an Office of Accountability would strengthen “oversight, at the highest level in the agency, to ensure that we are doing our utmost to enforce safety and health laws in our nation’s mines,” he said.

MSHA found that didn’t always happen at Alma, Sago or Darby.

“There were significant shortcomings in the way MSHA discharged its responsibilities at the three mines,” Stickler said in a memo to employees. While those shortcomings didn’t cause the accidents, Stickler said they contributed to the severity of the Alma fire.

MSHA found that inspectors missed numerous violations at the mine and didn’t require Massey to take corrective action.

“The number and nature of the issues identified in the inspections at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 indicates significant lapses” by inspectors, supervisors and district management, MSHA said. “Effective oversight by supervision and management would have identified and possibly prevented many of these lapses.”

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., called the errors “outrageous” and said he hopes “corrective actions in the field meet the optimistic rhetoric” issued Thursday. Rahall, whose district includes the Alma mine, was particularly critical of the agency’s inaction in southern West Virginia.

“MSHA should have known that its system in the southern district of West Virginia was teetering dangerously,” Rahall said. “It should have taken stiff corrective action long before.”

An attorney representing the widows of the Alma miners said he’s pleased with the level of detail, but unhappy about some findings.

“Obviously we are displeased with what the results of that investigation show, which appears to be an uncomfortable alliance between members of MSHA responsible for inspecting this Massey operation and Massey Energy itself,” Bruce Stanley said. Stanley is suing Massey over the deaths.

For instance, Stanley cited findings that MSHA reassigned Alma to a different field office after complaints from mine management. “After what appear to be some serious violations that were identified in 2001, the inspection teams were apparently reassigned at what would almost appear to be the request of Massey,” he said.

MSHA also found numerous shortcomings at Darby. Among other things, the agency said inspectors did not use the mine’s history of repeat violations to elevate enforcement. Inspection procedures also were not followed and management did an inadequate job of overseeing inspectors, MSHA said.

Specific problems noted by MSHA include failing to document poor record keeping by the mine and failing to document safety inspections.

Tony Oppegard, a lawyer who represents several Darby victims, said the bottom line is an “alarming lack of thoroughness” at Darby. Oppegard blamed the Bush administration’s approach to enforcing mine safety laws.

“You shouldn’t be confrontational, you shouldn’t be adversarial. It’s the good ole boy approach to mine safety,” he said. “Then they hammer the inspectors.”

Oppegard also criticized MSHA’s contention that it did not contribute to the Darby accident despite 200 pages of self-criticism.”It’s not a logical conclusion,” he said.

At Sago, MSHA faulted itself for setting the strength requirement for so-called alternative seals too low. A methane gas explosion in a sealed area of the mine destroyed seals. Thirteen miners were trapped and all but one died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

MSHA has since upped standards for lightweight block seals and in May issued an emergency rule requiring mines to strengthen all seals.

The Sago review also faults MSHA for failing to address lightning as a potential cause of methane gas explosions. The agency determined that lightning ignited methane that had built up behind seals.

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Associated Press writer Samira Jafari in Pikeville, Ky., contributed to this story.

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