Tuesday, March 06, 2012

U.S. agency says its inspectors ignored violations at W.Va. coal mine where 29 miners were killed

According to its own internal review, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's inspectors failed to properly inspect key parts of the mine that exploded, killing 29 miners in April 2010, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. They also failed to increase enforcement actions and missed coal-dust violations before the blast at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the report says.

Enforcement efforts at the West Virginia mine were "severely compromised" because "agency officials -- from rank-and-file inspectors to top managers -- did not follow established MSHA policies and procedures," the report states. The agency posted the report after briefing families of miners killed in the disaster.

The report says MSHA inspectors didn't report potential criminal violations for investigation and didn't check company safety reports. Internal investigators "found no evidence that missteps by agency employees caused the explosion," Ward writes. Breakdowns in the report "mirror those from nearly a dozen other 'internal review' reports published after major coal-mining disasters over the last 20 years," Ward reports.

The new report says MSHA's internal accountability programs have been successful at identifying problems, but top agency officials haven't done enough to eliminate those problems. Ward outlines "the most serious areas in which MSHA fell short of its mandate to protect coal miners" in the story. The internal review team blames problems mostly on lack of money and staff, lack of experience of new inspectors and high turnover of MSHA management in its Southern West Virginia office. (Read more)

On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward says two things "jumped out" at him on first reading: MSHA made a big deal about Massey Energy, the mine's former owner, keeping two sets of safety logs, one supposedly filled with fake information and shown to inspectors, the other real, but the review shows inspectors didn't look at any safety books; and MSHA records showed agency officials completed mine inspections, but didn't actually inspect the mine "in its entirety" as required by law because no one at MSHA knows "exactly what it means to inspect a mine in its 'entirety'."

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