MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A new audit of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows the agency has implemented more than half of the 100 internal changes recommended after an explosion killed 29 West Virginia coal miners three years ago.
Auditors with the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General acknowledged that MSHA’s efforts to address its own shortcomings began well before an internal-review report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster was released in March 2012.
The report also says that “barring unforeseen circumstances,” MSHA is on track to implement the remaining 44 changes as expected. It says MSHA administrators meet weekly and at the highest levels to keep on track, but it urges the agency to set formal deadlines for some outstanding objectives.
In a written response released with the report late Tuesday, MSHA chief Joe Main said he can’t “reasonably” set deadlines for every change because some factors are beyond his control when it comes to rulemaking, research, legal reviews and funding.
“The comprehensive actions we have taken have made mines safer than at any other time in mining history,” Main said, noting that 2011 was the safest year on record for both injuries and fatalities. “MSHA’s hard work is yielding results.”
In March 2012, MSHA released the results of an internal review that concluded federal inspectors either missed problems at the former Massey Energy mine or failed to inspect the areas where they existed in the 18 months before the blast.
But the report said there was no evidence those failures caused the disaster, which was the worst at a U.S. coal mine in four decades.
Four investigations found the blast was sparked by 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 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 internal review acknowledged multiple failures by field staff in MSHA’s largest region, southern West Virginia’s District 4. It also said their effectiveness was compromised by internal communication problems and by federal budget cuts that had created staffing shortages, inexperience and a lack of sufficient training and managerial oversight.
Main said MSHA has made significant structural changes and split District 4 in two, even as it conducted what it called one of the most thorough and methodical investigations ever done.
Although federal inspectors wrote a total of 684 violations in the 18 months before the Upper Big Branch blast, the internal review said they failed to act on eight that could have been 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 also found that “inadequate direction training and supervision” was as much a problem as inexperienced inspectors. But it tempered the criticism, noting that MSHA’s messages were not communicated consistently, resulting in “unclear, redundant and conflicting instructions” to inspectors.
When Main took over in 2009, MSHA was facing severe staffing problems, and about half the inspectors had two years’ experience or less. Main said MSHA now continually retrains inspectors, supervisors and specialists.