MSHA admits errors, not fault in explosion
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WASHINGTON -- Federal mine inspectors fell short of their duties but their failures didn't cause the massive explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia two years ago, according to an internal review by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The inspectors failed to evaluate some parts of Upper Big Branch Mine, including areas affected by the explosion, according to the 308-page report that was issued Tuesday by MSHA.
The report's authors, though, stopped short of blaming inspectors for the deadly April 2010 blast in Montcoal, W.Va. Rather, they blamed mine operator Massey Energy for falsifying records and concealing problems that would have prompted inspectors to take action.
"The internal review team is confident that District 4 inspectors would have cited these violations if they had observed them," said George Fesak, a 40-year agency employee who led the internal investigation.
Still, investigators found that inspectors failed to enforce penalties for Massey Energy's most flagrant violations, didn't identify dangerous accumulations of combustible coal dust, fell short of recommending proper ventilation, failed to address roof deficiencies, neglected to check the calibration of gas detectors and didn't effectively review the mine's record books.
The team also found that supervisors, who were supposed to review citations and inspection notes daily, sometimes waited 28 days or more, delaying corrective action.
"I don't think there's any question that MSHA could have done better. I don't think there's any question that we surely plan to do better in the future," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, who spoke with reporters on a conference call Tuesday. "We hold ourselves accountable for the findings."
Inspectors were dedicated to their work but sometimes failed to follow agency policies and procedures, some of which were vaguely written, internal investigators found.
"Shortcomings we found were not due to indifference ... but to difficult conditions," Mr. Fesak said during the conference call.
For United Mine Workers of America, there's plenty of blame to go around.
"The UMWA has always believed that three key factors are necessary in order for a mine to be a safe work place: a mine operator that is willing to follow mine safety laws, mine safety enforcement agencies that are willing to strictly and consistently enforce those laws, and a workforce that is empowered to speak out on its own behalf without fear of retribution," said Cecil E. Roberts, the union's international president. "None of these elements were present at the Upper Big Branch mine, with tragic results."
Mine inspectors found 684 violations at Upper Big Branch in the 18 months leading up to the deadly explosion. Internal investigators found that those inspectors failed to act on eight that could have been considered "flagrant," the agency's most serious designation.
In the report, reviewers attributed the shortcomings to reduced staffing, inspectors' inexperience, agency management turnover, poor oversight, insufficient training, ineffective use of data and agency directives that exceed what "an employee could reasonably be expected to learn or retain."
Mr. Fesak has recommended creating a single policy handbook with clear directives "to provide clarity where there's confusion."
The report includes numerous other recommendations. They include reducing the allowable amount of combustible content of coal dust; removing outdated material from inspectors' procedural handbooks; including new components in inspector training programs that explain the gravity associated with violations; and adding a feature on inspection software that automatically flags problems that meet the agency's definition of a potentially flagrant violation.
MSHA officials said they hope their report makes mines safer and that it brings some closure to relatives of the 29 men killed at Upper Big Branch.
"It's very understandable that, for a number of these families, closure is very difficult," Mr. Main said. "Our investigation's findings says this never should have happened."
District Four in Mt. Hope, W.Va., oversees inspections at Upper Big Branch and 436 other mines that employ 17,000 miners.
The internal review team interviewed 87 MSHA employees and reviewed 12,500 pages of documents including inspection reports.
The report follows an earlier MSHA investigation that blamed Massey Energy for maintaining two sets of records, concealing violations from inspectors and altering the mine's ventilation system to prevent inspectors' detection of air quality problems.
Mr. Main said Tuesday's report ends MSHA's internal review, but the Department of Justice is continuing to investigate. Already, two former Upper Big Branch employees have been convicted of crimes including lying to federal investigators and ordering the destruction of evidence. A third mine official was charged in an alleged conspiracy to give advance notification of mine inspectors, to falsify records and to alter the ventilation system.
Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine from Massey Energy, has agreed to pay $209 million in settlements, most of that to families of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch.
First Published March 7, 2012 12:00 am