W.Va. Senator: 'Something is Very, Very Wrong at MSHA'

After the Senate held its first hearing on mine safety since the deaths of 14 West Virginia coal miners this month, Sen. Robert Byrd blasted the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the operators of the Sago Mine, concluding: "There is blame to be assessed in the wake of these tragedies, and plenty of it to go around."

Byrd, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, heaped most of the blame on MSHA, which he assailed for its rescue response times at the Sago and Alma mines and for being too lenient with mine operators who violate safety regulations.

"Yes, MSHA is filled with good, well-intentioned and dedicated professionals, but … it is obvious that something is very, very wrong at MSHA," Byrd said.

According to Byrd, MSHA did not know about the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine until 2 hours after it happened, and MSHA personnel arrived at the scene 2 hours after that.

"The rescue procedures for miners are woefully inadequate," Byrd charged.

Byrd pointed a finger at the operators of the Sago Mine for racking up 276 safety violations in 2004 and 2005. Ashland, Ky.-based International Coal Group Inc. acquired the mine in November when it completed its merger with the mine's former operator, Anker Coal Group. The mine opened in September 1999, according to International Coal Group.

"It is quite possible that not one of these specific violations contributed to the explosion at Sago," Byrd said. "But 276 violations are certainly indicative of a company's sloppy attention toward the well-being of its employees."

Byrd also charged MSHA with being too lenient on "a habitual violator" such as the Sago Mine. The agency says its has fined the Sago Mine $24,155 for its safety violations from 2005; nine of the most serious violations have not been assessed with financial penalties because they currently are under appeal.

In Byrd's view, "whatever the amount of the fine, it wasn't enough to convince this company to take a hard look at the safety of its employees."

"Habitual violators must fear the consequences of a heavy fine to be paid when assessed," Byrd said. "We have to get tough about enforcing the law."

MSHA Beefed Up Inspections at Sago Mine in 2005

As MSHA comes under scrutiny from Byrd and others for the role it may or may not have played in the Sago Mine tragedy, the agency has defended its enforcement record not only at the Sago Mine but nationwide.

The agency says it beefed up its on-site inspections hours at the Sago Mine from 405 hours in 2004 to 744 in 2005 an increase of 84 percent due to the fact that Sago Mine's injury rate was significantly higher than the national average and production at Sago more than doubled from the previous year.

"MSHA's aggressive inspection and enforcement record at Sago Mine exemplifies the agency's record-setting commitment to strong enforcement over the past 5 years," the agency says on its Web site.

Responding to criticism that the agency should have shut down the Sago Mine in light of the 208 safety and health violations it identified in 2005, MSHA says it issued 18 separate withdrawal orders in 2005 to shut down mining activity in specific areas of the Sago Mine until the operator corrected safety and health problems.

The agency, however, points out that it does not have the statutory authority to shut down a mine if it does not identify a mine-wide hazard.

"Until MSHA completes its investigation of the accident and determines the likely cause of the explosion, it is impossible to speculate on what the causes might have been," the agency says. "At the same time, none of the health and safety violations cited by MSHA at Sago Mine last year involved an immediate risk of injury that would have warranted a 107(a) imminent danger order."

The agency adds that total citations and orders issued by the agency at all mines from 2000 to 2005 increased by 6 percent, from 120,050 to 127,682. Total citations and orders issued at coal mines during that same period increased by 18 percent, from 58,304 to 68,818.

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