A computer error prevented the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers died in an explosion last week from receiving a warning about safety violations and a demand that the operator improve conditions in 90 days, according to federal officials.
The director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said the error discovered Monday night did not have an impact on the accident at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine because improvements had been made even without the warning.
But the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and two other lawmakers called for an immediate investigation by the Labor Department’s inspector general into the computer error. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., joined Miller in calling the mistake “deeply disturbing.”
A computer program used by the MSHA screens mines for patterns of violations. By failing to include eight citations at the Upper Big Branch mine, the program did not flag the mine for a safety notification and an order for improvements, MSHA Director Joe Main told The Associated Press.
Half of the eight citations involved problems with ventilation, according to data provided by MSHA. Those problems were corrected within hours or days of determination, per federal guidelines.
Highly explosive methane is believed to have been a factor in the deadly blast near Montcoal, W.Va.
When officials reviewed the data, according to Main, it turned out that the mine had dramatically reduced its violations by nearly 65 percent even without the notification the eight citations would have triggered.
“The computer programming error did not have an impact on this tragedy,” Main said in an interview. “But it’s something we needed to fix, there’s no question about it.”
Main said the program error has affected pattern screenings since 2007 but that Upper Big Branch was the only mine where it had any effect.
Under the agency’s current guidelines, mines that show an apparent pattern of violations over a two-year period get bumped to a higher level of scrutiny and face the potential for stiffer penalties and closure.
But a mine can avoid that heightened scrutiny if it reduces the most serious violations by either 30 percent or to a level at or below the national average for similar mines.
At a hearing on mine safety issues in February, House lawmakers said MSHA data shows that future serious violations were cut by 72 percent when MSHA issued letters to mines saying they faced potential closures for additional violations.
If the Upper Big Branch mine had been issued a warning letter in October, it would have been the second time that the mine had received such a letter in two years.
In 2007, the mine also met criteria to be declared by MSHA to have a pattern of violations. But Massey again was able to reduce the number of the most serious violations and avoid the declaration.
Gregory Wagner, a deputy assistant secretary for MSHA, said the computer program that screens for a pattern was improperly leaving out some citations — even though they were final and uncontested.
Main said the larger issue is that the process for finding a pattern of violation needs to be fixed. Under current policy, the agency’s screening process only considers violations that are deemed final. That means mine operators like Massey have every incentive to take advantage of the system by filing legal challenges to dozens, even hundreds of citations, thus preventing the agency for months or years from using them to determine a pattern of violations.
MSHA officials have conceded that the Upper Big Branch mine would have been found to have a pattern of violations if all the contested citations had been counted. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine, but only 16 percent have been paid.
Main said he is working to change the agency’s policy so that mine operators cannot take advantage of the lag time between when a citation is issued and when it becomes final.
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