MSHA chief Joe Main testified to Congress earlier this year in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
Joe Main (second from left) meets with President Obama in the White House following the April 5 explosion that killed 29 Massey Energy miners.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Joe Main remembers the phone calls. In December 1984, he was in an Indiana hotel when he heard about the Wilberg Mine fire that killed 27 Utah coal miners. In September 2001, Main, then the United Mine Workers safety director, was at the federal mine academy in Beckley when he got word that 13 UMW members died in an explosion at a Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama.
This time, Main was sitting in Arlington, Va., in the office where he works as assistant labor secretary in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Charlie Thomas, deputy administrator of MSHA's coal division, burst through the door.
"When I saw the expression on his face, I knew it wasn't good news," Main recalled.
After five long days of desperate searching, Main and other mine safety officials declared that 29 miners had died in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. But Main says now that he had a bad feeling from the first briefing he received.
"When you have missing miners and you have no communications and you have all of the signs of an explosion and you have fire coming out of a mine, you know from that moment, when you start getting that kind of information, that it's pretty serious," Main said in an interview last week. "I think we recognized that from some of the first moments."
As safety director for the UMW, Main watched the aftermath of many mine disasters. He's investigated MSHA's failings, demanded tougher enforcement, and was long a thorn in the agency's side. But this time, the Pennsylvania native was running the agency that is supposed to prevent such things. The worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years happened on his watch.
After being confirmed in October 2009, Main promised a long list of reforms, from ending black lung disease to toughening enforcement and pushing operators to beef up their own internal safety programs.
Over the last eight months, though, MSHA -- and Main -- have had little choice but to concentrate on Upper Big Branch: on the investigation, the congressional follow-up hearings and on a bitter public relations battle with Massey Energy and its controversial CEO, Don Blankenship.
But Main says he and his agency haven't lost their focus. Other projects are on schedule, he says, and the Upper Big Branch investigation is moving along at a pace with which he's comfortable.
"Things did go a little different after April 5," Main said. "We've had to make some adjustments.
"We've tried to keep focused on the agenda that was in place, deal with the crisis that occurred and continue to analyze mine safety and make the improvements that are needed."
Main is tight-lipped about the Upper Big Branch investigation, especially for a man who in his previous job regularly criticized MSHA for not being transparent enough with miners, the press and the public.
But he explains that by pointing out that federal criminal authorities have gotten involved in looking into Upper Big Branch "in a much more dramatic way" than he's seen in other major mining accidents. He say he is still committed to some sort of public hearings about Upper Big Branch, but that the ongoing criminal probe could impact the timing, the format, and the kind of information that is released and discussed.
Main says his agency is still examining reports of incidents where methane-monitoring devices at Upper Big Branch were alleged to have been disabled.
"All of the pieces are still on the table to sort out," Main said. "I'm not saying it is an issue and I'm not saying that it isn't an issue."
Main also won't talk about two previous incidents -- in 2003 and 2004 -- where methane burst through the floor of the Upper Big Branch Mine, or about whether his agency took proper action following those incidents. He won't even say if MSHA has located missing documents about those issues.
"Are we looking at that? The answer is absolutely yes," he said. "All of the information that we amass will be released to the public. Have we amassed it all yet? That is still a question that is on the table."
Main says that Massey officials, including Blankenship, had a right to exercise their Fifth Amendment privilege and refuse to answer questions in response to subpoenas by state officials looking into the mine disaster. But he says MSHA may look at the situation differently when it gets to the public hearing stage, and force those company officials to appear at the hearing and invoke their rights publicly, rather than by letter as state officials allowed.
"We would look at that a little different than the state did," Main said. "Ours would be under a different set of legal circumstances."
Main says thinking about the families who lost husbands, brothers, fathers and sons at Upper Big Branch, drives his whole focus.
"I have a lot of compassion for the families, not only from Upper Big Branch, but for the other families who have been through these things," Main says.
"No one knows the real suffering and pain that these folks go through," he says. "It's awful. Life changed forever for them."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com