MSHA internal review coming next week - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

MSHA internal review coming next week

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The self-review of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's role in the conditions leading to the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners will be released next week.

According to a release from the agency, the internal review of the agency will be released on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. with a press conference following later that day.

"This is probably the most extensive investigation, and rightfully so, at least in modern times, with regard to a mining accident and we have worked hard as an agency to get to the bottom of what went wrong on April 5," MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main said at meeting in Beckley announcing the agency's results of the investigation. "We are also working earnestly to see that those who are responsible are held accountable. There's more work to be done."

Several reports were conducted to determine who and what is to blame for the disaster. The United Mine Workers of America, MSHA, an independent investigation team and the state's mine safety agency all basically concluded that a methane buildup was ignited, likely by faulty equipment, which fueled what would become a coal dust explosion.

The independent report, conducted by Davitt McAteer, pointed blame at both state and federal regulators. The state mine safety office recently announced it would also conduct an internal review, but added that the results would not be made public.

McAteer's report points to a number of faults within MSHA.

"In the days and months following the UBB disaster, officials with the U.S. Department of Labor and its Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have repeatedly defended the agency's performance," the report states. "They point out that the federal Mine Act places the duty for providing a safe workplace squarely on the shoulders of the employer, and they insist that the operator is ultimately responsible for operating a safe mine. While that is true, it is not the whole the story."

A lack of enforcement, McAteer wrote, was a contributing factor to the Upper Big Branch explosion. The report points out that the district in which UBB was located had more than 200 mines with a small staff of inspectors. The average experience of the District 4 employees, McAteer's report states, was about three years.

"As one long-time MSHA official told investigators, ‘Massey trains our inspectors better than we do,'" the report states. "He meant that the way inspectors are treated during inspections at Massey mines impacts the enforcement attitude of the inspectors."

At UBB, federal inspectors wrote 515 citations in the year prior to the explosion, including 48 withdrawal orders for significant and substantial violations.

Quoting a Charleston Gazette story, McAteer's report hints that the internal review team may answer why UBB was never shut down.

"… despite the fact that the Upper Big Branch mine was cited dozens of times in the year preceding the disaster for violating ventilation plan requirements, MSHA never cited Upper Big Branch for a flagrant violation," the report states. "Even as they have asked for more enforcement tools, MSHA officials have not explained why they failed to use the ‘flagrant' tool at UBB. An MSHA spokesperson said it is a matter being examined by MSHA's ‘internal review' team."

A 2009 internal audit of MSHA found evidence of incomplete inspections and numerous other agency deficiencies.

"Despite MSHA's considerable authority and resources, its collective knowledge and experience, the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that the agency failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners," McAteer's report states. "Equally disturbing is the fact that high-ranking MSHA officials apparently were aware that the agency was falling short in its responsibilities."

McAteer provided a list of deficiencies with MSHA regarding Upper Big Branch – disregarding documented methane outbursts, overlooking "deadly potential of precarious ventilation system" at UBB, neglecting to force safety technology improvements and allowing the mine safety system to "atrophy."


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