Audit slams mine safety agency over its handling of complaints
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U.S. coal miners may have faced "prolonged hazardous conditions" because the nation's coal mine safety agency was slow to investigate complaints about life-threatening conditions, a new federal report says.
The U.S. Department of Labor inspector general's audit also says the nation's 11 regional coal districts were "neither consistent nor complete" in how they handled the most serious complaints. In at least one instance, similar methane levels were labeled an "imminent danger" in one mine, but not in another.
The inspector also found "several instances" in which information that could identify the miner reporting the hazard was inadvertently conveyed to the mine operator, which could discourage others from reporting.
Between Jan. 1, 2005, and March 30, 2006, the inspector general found, in 56 of the 410 hazardous condition complaints, it took at least two days before the district office was notified. The complaints could cover such unsafe conditions as significant levels of methane or unstable roof supports.
The majority of the delays occurred because the complaint was received on a weekend or holiday. But for 12 of the complaints, it took longer than three days -- and as many as 11 days -- as the mines continued operating.
The report also says it sometimes took an additional three days or more for an inspection to start, although the majority began within a day of notification.
"It is vital that [the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration] take immediate action any time a complaint is filed about hazardous conditions in a mine," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
"Waiting two days before investigating a complaint could literally mean the difference between life and death."
Late yesterday, MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot released a statement saying that the agency "responds immediately to any report of hazards that pose imminent danger to miners."
He added that "MSHA is always striving to improve its processes, and the [inspector general's] report will help us target those areas deserving additional attention. Our shared goal is to help ensure the safety of America's miners."
The report acknowledges that MSHA's Office of Coal Mine Safety and Health has taken steps to improve its handling of complaints. The agency has broadened its definition of which complaints require action to include verbal complaints and anonymous complaints and, in February, it also introduced an improved system for tracking complaints.
Because of the inspector general's findings, MSHA also plans to implement further steps to protect the identity of miners who report hazards.
While federal laws, regulations and policies do not set a time limit for responding to hazardous condition complaints, "all convey a desire for prompt action," the report says. The federal Mine Act, in fact, requires an "immediate inspection" of violations and regulations call for an inspection "as soon as possible."
But MSHA officials, who may fine mine operators up to $60,000 if they don't notify them within 15 minutes of a life-threatening incident, told investigators they did not want a specific time limit for evaluating complaints. Such a time limit, they said, "could have a detrimental effect on the evaluation and quality of the inspection and response."
The 75-page report, available on the inspector general's Web site, was prompted by the multiple coal mine disasters this year, following a record low 22 fatalities in 2005. So far, 38 underground coal miners have died in 2006, including 14 at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia in January, and five at the Darby Mine in Kentucky in May.
First Published October 4, 2006 12:00 am