'Disturbing' MSHA Enforcement Deficiencies Revealed in Report

An internal report released by MSHA about the 2006 disasters at the Sago, Aracoma and Darby mines revealed "deeply disturbing" deficiencies in the agency's enforcement programs.

The 650-page report, released on June 28, provided internal reviews of each of the mines, resulting in 153 recommendations that, according to the agency, “will improve MSHA's ability to administer the provisions of the Mine Act and enforce compliance with mandatory safety and health standards.”

In addition, MSHA announced the creation of an internal accountability office to improve oversight and examine existing enforcement programs within the agency. The agency already has an accountability program, but one of the reviews concluded the exiting program is flawed because it fails to identify root causes of enforcement problems.

The new division will conduct oversight reviews to ensure that potential lapses in enforcement policies don't occur to implement actions recommended by MSHA audits and internal reviews, the agency said.

“MSHA's internal review teams identified a number of deficiencies in our enforcement programs, which I found deeply disturbing,” said Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “The creation of the Office of Accountability within the Office of the Assistant Secretary will add enhanced oversight, at the highest level in the agency, to ensure that we are doing our utmost to enforce safety and health laws in our nation's mines.”

Aracoma Mine Had the Most Serious Problems

The most serious problems detailed in the reports were at Massey Energy's Aracoma mine, where two workers died in a Jan. 19, 2006 fire.

According to the report, the majority of violations at Aracoma that contributed to the Jan. 19 blast were obvious and should have been identified by federal inspectors. In addition to a failure to comply with MSHA regulations, a lack of effective management oversight and controls contributed to the enforcement deficiencies at Aracoma. In addition, inspectors failed to effectively evaluate and address complex safety and health conditions due to a lack of technical know-how.

The agency stated it has referred its findings at Aracoma to the Labor Department's Office of Inspector General for further investigation of employee misconduct.

Sago and Darby Also Had Enforcement Deficiencies

MSHA's review of Sago – the site where an explosion caused the entrapment, and consequently, the deaths of 12 miners in Jan 2006 – found that district personnel dealt with compliance issues by increasing the level of enforcement prior to the explosion. But failure by personnel to follow inspection procedures, coupled with inadequate managerial oversight, resulted in a number of enforcement deficiencies, according to the report. MSHA inspectors repeatedly did not examine emergency breathing devices, check gas-monitoring gear or discover missing lightning protection equipment, the report said.

And at Darby, where five miners died in a May 20, 2006, explosion, inspection personnel did not effectively utilize the mine operator's history of repeat violations to elevate the level of enforcement. Failure to follow inspection procedures, along with inadequate managerial oversight, resulted in many of the deficiencies identified in the report, which included:

  • Failure by MSHA inspectors to identify defects in the construction of underground seals;
  • Failure by inspectors to cite the mine operators for improper placement of fire-protection and suppression equipment, for providing outdated maps of escape ways and ventilation controls and for failure to follow the mine's roof-control plan;
  • Failure to inspect mining equipment, as well as failure by inspectors to determine whether miners were qualified to check for methane and whether gas detection equipment was properly calibrated.

According to MSHA, the Office of Accountability will be managed by a director who will report to Stickler. Two compliance specialists will be based in the field, and additional field personnel will be called upon to provide staff expertise, the agency said.

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