Whitesburg KY

MSHA report finds own performance ‘unacceptable’

Federal mine safety officials overlooked obvious violations, declined to take serious enforcement actions, and wrote regulations that were far too weak at three mines where 19 miners died last year, according to three new internal Labor Department reviews.

Staff cuts, agency reorganizations and an emphasis on “compliance assistance” also eroded the ability of the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration to protect miners, according to the long-awaited reviews released last week.

Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, pronounced the findings “deeply disturbing.” Stickler announced plans for a new MSHA Office of Accountability to correct the problems.

“These three reviews show an unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight that will not be tolerated,” Stickler said in a memo to all MSHA employees, released to the public along with the reports.

The three reports – 650 pages in all – outline MSHA’s lapses at two explosions and a fire that killed a total of 19 miners last year at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia and the Darby Mine in Kentucky.

In each report, a team of MSHA officials not directly involved in overseeing the mines at issue examined inspection, enforcement and management by agency employees. And in each report, those teams found that inspectors missed obvious and significant safety problems.

At Sago, for example, MSHA inspectors repeatedly did not examine emergency breathing devices, check gas-monitoring gear, or discover missing lightning protection equipment. Twelve miners died at Sago after a Jan. 2, 2006, explosion, making it the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

The report found that MSHA officials properly tried to escalate enforcement as safety conditions at Sago worsened before the explosion. However, the review team also found 16 instances in 2005 when MSHA inspectors should have cited safety problems as willful or knowing violations.

MSHA inspectors at the Darby Mine overlooked unsafe roof conditions, inadequate ventilation, and the operator’s failure to conduct pre-shift safety examinations. Five workers died in a May 20, 2006, explosion.

Inspectors also did not use the mine’s history of repeated violations to escalate enforcement actions against the operators, the report found.

But the most serious problems cited in the three MSHA reports were at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, where 2 workers died in a Jan. 19, 2006, fire.

“The team members are unaware of a similar situation in which health and safety hazards were so prevalent, and conditions in the mine so deplorable, yet MSHA personnel at so many levels failed to follow established agency policies and procedures which are designed to provide that coal mines will be fully and effectively inspected,” the Aracoma interview review concluded.

At Aracoma, missing ventilation walls allowed smoke from a conveyor belt fire to enter the underground mine’s primary escape tunnel. A crew of workers had to find a way out. Two of them, Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield, got lost and eventually died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The missing ventilation walls “were obvious and easily identifiable,” according to the MSHA internal review team. Agency inspectors “traveled through the affected area on several occasions and did not recognize and cite these violations,” the report said.

Internal review teams at Aracoma and Darby identified issues “regarding employee misconduct” and referred those issues to agency officials for action, the reports said. No such misconduct was found at Sago, that report said.

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot declined to provide details of the specific employees or the actions taken, but read a prepared statement about the matter.

“MSHA has initiated disciplinary action, including removal in some cases, against the MSHA employees who were responsible for the inspection of the Aracoma Mine,” Fillpot said. “These employees, of course, have a right to respond to the proposal, and their response will be given full consideration before the agency makes any final decision regarding disciplinary action.”

Fillpot said MSHA “is pursuing personnel actions against others” in response to the internal reviews, but declined to elaborate.

MSHA inspector Minness Justice said last week that he and Edward Paynter, the last two agency inspectors at Aracoma, have been notified that they will be fired in 30 days.

“They’re blaming the two inspectors,” Justice said. “MSHA management was a huge part of the problem.”

Since the fire, several key MSHA supervisors with roles over Aracoma have retired. They include former District Manager Jesse Cole and supervising inspectors Bill Gillenwater and Jake Blevins.

The MSHA internal review of Aracoma backs up some complaints from Justice that staffing cuts, reorganizations and philosophical changes at agency headquarters undercut the protection of miners.

The report describes how, in October 2004, the MSHA Southern West Virginia office in Mount Hope reassigned roof control, ventilation and other experts as regular mine inspectors.

“Although beneficial for the completion of mandated inspections,

inspectors stated during interviews that these reassignments

had a detrimental effect on the availability of technical expertise within each field office,” the report said.

Some MSHA inspectors told the internal review team that “MSHA’s compliance assistance efforts impacted the way inspections were performed.

“Most inspectors stated that they understood that they were to continue to enforce the regulations,” the report said. “However, a few inspectors stated that they were confused by the new compliance assistance language and believed that, while they were still supposed to issue citations, they should be more cooperative with companies.”

The report says that one MSHA inspector told his boss that every time he cited the Aracoma Mine for a violation, “mine management would aggressively question the validity of his citations.”

In 2001, the report says, Massey asked for a meeting with the MSHA district manager to discuss the company’s violations and injury rate. As a result of the meeting, MSHA and Massey created a joint training program.

After this occurred, mine management complained about an MSHA Logan field office supervisor, and the supervisor was reassigned, the internal review report says.

The report also says “several inspectors stated that they felt that if a higher level of enforce- ment had been implemented at (Aracoma), the actions would not have been supported by at least one of the field office supervisors.

“They stated that one supervisor created an atmosphere of lenient enforcement toward mine operators, and as a result, progressively stronger enforcement actions were rarely utilized in the Logan Field Office and never used at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in the four years preceding the January 19, 2006, fatal fire,” the report said.

In its Sago internal review, MSHA said that agency officials should have eliminated miners’ cap stickers that urged workers to barricade underground if they couldn’t escape from an explosion or fire. Also, MSHA said, it should have provided better instructions for using emergency breathing devices.

MSHA internal reviewers found that the agency committee that wrote a 1992 rule change weakening construction standards for underground mine seals “lacked the specialized technical expertise” for dealing with such a complex issue.

At Sago, MSHA inspectors found that the foam-block mine seals were not properly constructed according to the company’s approved ventilation plan.

But, agency officials did not take that issue seriously until after poorly constructed seals allowed methane to leak and cause the Darby explosion, the Darby internal review report concluded.

The MSHA internal reviews are available online at www.msha.gov.

Ken Ward Jr. is a staff writer specializing in the coal industry for the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, W.Va.

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