CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four years ago, Ray McKinney, then the nation's top coal-mine regulator, had scheduled a high-level meeting with officials from International Coal Group. At the meeting, set for the first week of January 2006, McKinney, then the coal administrator at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, planned to confront ICG about growing safety problems at the company's mines.The meeting never happened. Early on the morning of Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through ICG's Sago Mine in Upshur County, killing 12 miners. Investigators later determined MSHA had not done nearly enough to prevent the disaster.Last Monday, McKinney's successor, Kevin Stricklin, was on his way to Kentucky for a high-level meeting with Massey Energy officials about safety troubles at the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant's operations.That meeting never happened either. On his way to Kentucky, Stricklin got word that Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County had blown up -- killing 29 miners in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.In the wake of last week's deaths and as investigations begin, at least some of the focus will turn to MSHA, a long-troubled agency that has struggled to recover from Bush administration budget cuts, a focus toward industry friendly "compliance assistance" over tough enforcement, and a rough-and-tumble industry that frequently bucks regulators.Passage of landmark mine safety laws in 1969 and 1977, along with creation of MSHA with its mandatory inspections and long lists of safety standards, has dramatically cut mining injuries and deaths.But the nation's coalfields still suffer periodic fires, explosions or mine floods that can stomp out a dozen or more lives in an instant. And after each of the major incidents over the last 20 years, investigators have found that MSHA did not do enough beforehand to prevent the deaths, according to a review of agency records and outside audit reports.Federal regulators have frequently overlooked major violations of safety rules intended to protect miners. They have declined to take harsh enough enforcement action or ensure that problems were quickly fixed. Agency supervisors have not trained inspectors or made MSHA requirements clear to them. MSHA has not always written additional rules to protect against newly discovered mining hazards."We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the mine operation always has the primary responsibility for the safety of its mine," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety expert and former MSHA staffer. "However, MSHA has an important role to play in ensuring safety as well. And frequently, when a disaster occurs, failures on the part of MSHA and/or the state enforcement agency have also contributed to the cause of the disaster."Questions already have been raised about whether MSHA took strong enough action at the Upper Big Branch Mine, given increasing violations and safety problems at the mine. Officials of the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, have promised some sort of review of the agency's enforcement actions at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Details of that review have not yet been announced, but MSHA officials last week had already begun defending their actions at the Massey mine."We issued citations for every hazard we identified," said Greg Wagner, deputy assistant labor secretary for MSHA. "We held the operator accountable for correcting the problems that were cited."
History, though, shows that MSHA has not always done all it could to prevent mine disasters and other mining deaths: On Sept. 13, 1989, an explosion ripped through Pyro Mining Co.'s William Station Mine in Union County, Ky. Ten miners died.
After the disaster, investigators found that federal inspectors repeatedly allowed Pyro Mining to overlook major safety problems. MSHA inspectors did not notice when company officials missed hazards during required pre-shift safety checks.
In September 2001, a series of blasts tore through the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. Thirteen miners died.
After the disaster, MSHA officials found that their own inspectors had again missed problems with the company's safety checks. On Jan. 16, 1991, two miners died in a methane explosion at the Fire Creek Inc. No. 1 Mine in McDowell County. After the deaths, six company officials pleaded guilty to falsifying mine records, which made it appear they had conducted pre-shift safety checks. An internal MSHA review team found that agency inspectors had not ensured the safety checks were being conducted. In December 1992, four workers died in an explosion that occurred while they were sealing a mine shaft at the CONSOL Energy Blacksville No. 1 Mine in Monongalia County. The contractors had never received training for working near explosive methane gas, but MSHA had never written a rule to spell out such training requirements for contract shaft workers.
More recently, internal reviews by MSHA of its own actions at the Sago, Aracoma and Darby mine disasters in 2006 in West Virginia and Kentucky criticized the agency for declining to take serious enforcement actions and writing weak regulations, as well as cutting staff and putting an emphasis on "compliance assistance."Then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler said those three internal reviews were "deeply disturbing" and "show an unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight that will not be tolerated."An independent report commissioned by then-Labor Secretary Elaine Chao on MSHA's performance at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine, where nine workers died in an August 2007 mine wall collapse, was even pointed in its criticisms of the Bush policies."This new direction resulted in such an overwhelming number of different special emphasis programs, compliance assistance programs, and initiatives that an enormous amount of the inspectors' focus was diverted away from completion of regular inspections," the Crandall Canyon report said. "Although these compliance activities certainly have value and can provide a positive impact on the coal industry, MSHA does not possess the staffing or funding to effectively conduct mandated inspections along with a multitude of additional activities."In Southern West Virginia, budget and staffing cuts at MSHA, combined with a spike in mine production, prompted federal officials to fall dangerously behind on their legal mandate to conduct complete inspections of all underground coal mines once every quarter.Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., responded by pushing Congress to increase MSHA's budget for coal enforcement from $117 million in 2006 to $159 this year, a 36 percent increase. MSHA has hired 444 new coal enforcement staff, including 119 in West Virginia.Byrd said Friday that he would "continue to examine the funding needs of MSHA as this investigation moves forward."Just days before the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, a Labor Department Inspector General's audit found that MSHA was not ensuring that its inspectors were adequately trained."We now know that even with increased funding, we have hundreds of inspectors who are not sufficiently trained, an inspection process that creates bottlenecks putting more miners at risk and a massive problem that at its core means MSHA can bury a faulty company with mountains of paperwork while the company can continue questionable mining practices," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va."It falls on both the mining company and the regulatory agency to make sure that a mine is safe and in this instance both failed," Capito said in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "I ask that as we move forward, we take a long hard look at the relationship of mine operators and MSHA and how we could have prevented this disaster."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.