Mine safety agency offers self-criticism in probe of 2010 disaster

By Charles S. Clark

June 30, 2011

A federal probe of safety procedures before the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia has brought out new criticisms of both the Massey Energy Co. and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In an updated report presented Wednesday, MSHA charged the coal company with discouraging workers from reporting safety issues and keeping two sets of books in the days leading up to the explosion at Upper Big Branch mine. Hazards would be noted in the reports used for internal production and maintenance, but not included in a separate set of examination books for required submission to federal inspectors, it said.

Testimony from some of the 266 people MSHA interviewed showed that "managers were aware that chronic hazardous conditions were not recorded," Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety, said at a briefing in Raleigh County, W.Va.

The report, which includes photographs and maps, along with a description of the 105 MSHA investigators and 45 technicians probing the tragedy, reiterated that the blast was caused by ignition of methane gas and coal dust, concluding, "This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator." Massey Energy had been cited by inspectors for more than 600 violations in the 18 months before the blast.

When Stricklin was asked by reporters why the agency hadn't followed up on warnings dating back to 2003-04, he acknowledged faults. "It didn't look like we did," he agreed. "It's something that the internal review is looking at and it's something we can do better at."

Stricklin also pointed to confusion over federal staff responsibility in 2003-04, when a district manager retired and another key manager took a job with Massey. He said the inspectors were trying to address such problems, as indicated by 48 closure orders they issued before the explosion.

United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said in a statement Wednesday, "MSHA's revelation that there were two sets of books kept at the mine where information about safety issues were recorded demonstrates the utter contempt for mine safety and health laws that was pervasive throughout the entire management structure at Massey Energy." He called the situation a crime and said,"Punishment for those responsible for this cannot be too severe."

The use of double books is "not unusual," said Carol Raulston, senior vice president for communications at theNational Mine Association, an industry group.

Stricklin had declined to say whether the use of double books is common among mining companies, but promised to "make sure it's not happening at other places."

Raulston agreed the logs must be kept current: "Clearly we support that official books should be up to date and be available to employees," she said.

She also faulted MSHA inspectors. The safety omissions MSHA highlighted in its report "should have been readily apparent and visible to a mine inspector," she said. "They're not the kind of thing you can fix on a moment's notice, and they can't be camouflaged."

Still, she emphasized that it remains "the mine's responsibility to maintain safety, and the fact that an inspector didn't spot a problem does not absolve the mine. MSHA has now taken steps to more aggressively use the tools it has had under the law for a long time."

United Mine Workers Communications Director Phil Smith declined to comment on MSHA's performance, saying the union has its own report coming by the end of the summer.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., earlier this week praised MSHA for keeping the families of the deceased miners up to date on progress in the investigation. He asked Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to make certain MSHA is responsive to the families' questions.

The disaster is under criminal investigation by the Justice Department and a grand jury has been considering indictments. MSHA expects to release a final written report as early as October.

By Charles S. Clark

June 30, 2011