Mine safety agency comes under scrutiny
Two federal agencies have begun separate investigations of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and its performance protecting underground coal miners, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned.
The audits are being conducted by the inspector general’s office in the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees MSHA, and the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress.
The inspector general’s audit will examine MSHA’s process for miners to make confidential reports of potentially unsafe mine conditions, an investigation prompted by a series of mine tragedies this year. The audit also will involve a routine evaluation of MSHA’s mine inspection program.
Both of those responsibilities fall under MSHA’s Office of Coal Mine Safety and Health, which is in charge of enforcing mine safety regulations.
The GAO is looking at MSHA’s escape and mine rescue operations and its process for assessing safety violations and penalties, among other issues. In addition, it will look at how well MSHA addressed its projected needs for new inspectors.
Francis E. “Shorty” Wehr Sr., who retired last year as president of the West Virginia-based American Federation of Government Employees local that represents mine inspectors, says he warned MSHA officials three years ago that they needed more inspectors.
He said he once told then-MSHA head Dave Lauriski that in West Virginia 60 percent of the mine inspectors were expected to retire in three to five years.
“I asked him the question — ‘Mr. Lauriski, when are you going to hire people?’ His answer was, ‘If I get the money, I’ll hire. If I don’t get the money, I won’t hire.’ ”
Now, Mr. Wehr said, MSHA has lowered the required training time for becoming an inspector from four to five years to one year in order to fill the need for more inspectors.
“For a guy to become a good inspector, you’re looking at three to five years of training,” said Mr. Wehr.
“It’s a tough job. Every move you make has to be right. I really believe if they hire people with just one year of experience, they’re going to have more problems down the road.”
In a statement released Friday, Acting MSHA Administrator David Dye said the agency “is fully cooperating in the investigations” and that he believes the investigations “are useful in improving MSHA’s program for protecting the nation’s miners.”
The GAO report, due in March, was requested by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, chaired by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. Also seeking GAO’s review was the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by California Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, with outspoken mine safety advocate Rep. George Miller of California the ranking minority member.
MSHA has been under fire since a Jan. 2 explosion at West Virginia’s Sago Mine in Upshur County that left 12 miners dead. Seventeen days later, a conveyor belt fire at the Aracoma Mine in Logan County killed two miners.
Including the death of five more miners at Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Ky., on May 20, a total of 33 miners have died in U.S. mines so far in 2006, compared with a record low 22 deaths in 2005.
While the reviews are separate from formal investigations on the Sago, Aracoma and Darby incidents — including a federal criminal investigation on the Aracoma accident — they touch on areas where MSHA has faced criticism.
At Sago, families of the dead miners say it took too long to organize and deploy rescue teams. MSHA also came under fire because the mine had continued operating despite 208 citations from federal inspectors the previous year, nearly half of them considered “significant and substantial violations” of safety regulations.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in March that a missing section of wall allowed smoke into an escapeway, possibly hindering the two miners at Aracoma as they tried to get out.
And at Darby, preliminary reports indicate a miner using a cutting torch may have ignited methane gas near a sealed portion of the mine, days after an MSHA inspector had been in the mine.