Report: Inspectors Missed Mine Issues

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 @ 04:03 PM gHale

Federal inspectors either missed problems at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine or failed to inspect the areas where those issues existed in the 18 months before a deadly 2010 explosion, a new report said.

But the internal review concluded there is no evidence those failures caused the disaster, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) report posted online Tuesday after briefing relatives of the 29 miners killed in the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in four decades.

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The report acknowledges multiple failures by field staff in MSHA’s largest region, southern West Virginia’s District 4. It also said their effectiveness suffered compromise by internal communication problems and by federal budget cuts that created staffing shortages, inexperience and a lack of sufficient training and managerial oversight.

Although MSHA has made significant improvements in the past two years, the report said it’s not enough and contains about 20 pages of detailed, technical recommendations for regulatory and administrative changes.

“More must be done to protect the health and safety of the nation’s miners,” it said.

MSHA director Joe Main said he takes the findings seriously and praised the review team for identifying systemic breakdowns.

“We can’t just do internal reviews. We have to fix the problems,” he said. “We take responsibility for the agency’s actions here. We have an obligation to fix these things, and yes, we’re going to do that.”

Four investigations have concluded the blast was the result of worn and broken equipment, fueled by a deadly buildup of methane and coal dust, and allowed to spread because of clogged and broken water sprayers.

MSHA investigators found Massey Energy, bought last summer by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, made “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to hide problems and throw off inspectors, even falsifying safety records. Managers also alerted miners when inspectors arrived, allowing time to disguise or temporarily fix dangerous conditions.

The former superintendent faces charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and is cooperating in a Department of Justice investigation. A former security chief, meanwhile, got three years in prison for lying to investigators and attempting to destroy records.

The internal review said MSHA inspectors consistently failed to identify problems with accumulations of explosive coal dust and deviations from ventilation and roof control plans. It also said they failed to use the operator’s examination books to determine if they corrected hazards.

It noted those inspectors failed to identify 10 safety violations that MSHA’s accident investigation team later determined had contributed to the blast. In some cases, they didn’t recognize hazards, the report said. In others, they just didn’t inspect the areas where they existed.

Although inspectors wrote 684 violations in the 18 months before the blast, the report said they failed to act on eight deemed “flagrant,” the most serious designation. They also failed to conduct special investigations on at least six occasions to determine whether managers knowingly violated safety standards.

The report, conducted by MSHA employees outside District 4, found “inadequate direction training and supervision” was as much a problem as inexperienced inspectors.

But it tempered the criticism, noting MSHA’s messages were not consistent, resulting in “unclear, redundant and conflicting instructions” to inspectors.

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