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Hazards in W.Va. Upper Big Branch mine missed, report reveals

| Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Federal inspectors on Tuesday acknowledged they missed problems inside the Upper Big Branch mine before an explosion killed 29 miners but stopped short of saying that contributed to the tragedy.

"We could have done a better job at UBB," Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main said. "We plan to do better. At the end of the day, we hold ourselves accountable."

MSHA published the findings of an internal review examining what inspectors could have done better in the 18 months leading up to the April 5, 2010, explosion, which was the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in 40 years.

The report found inspectors failed to identify safety problems in mines and blamed budgetary constraints and a wave of retirements for depleting the team of inspectors charged with monitoring the mine. It blames supervisors for failing to "provide adequate oversight of inspections and investigations" and says officials missed entire sections of the mine during inspections.

Inspectors did not always review the mine's examination record books despite "hundreds of entries documenting the amount of time hazards existed without corrective actions," the report states.

It noted poor communication between federal officials and field-level inspectors in MSHA's District 4 region, which covers southern West Virginia.

Main still defended district inspectors, noting that they issued more safety violations than any other region in the country, including 684 at Upper Big Branch in 2009 alone.

He and others continued to blame former mine operator Massey Energy Co., which Main said used advanced warnings to alert underground miners of inspections, falsified safety records and intimidated miners to keep them from complaining about dangerous conditions.

"MSHA cannot be excused for the lapses in enforcement identified in this report, but neither can Massey hide behind this review as an excuse for its own blatant flouting of the law and callous disregard for the welfare of its own employees," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said in a written statement.

Officials at Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in January 2011, said they didn't think it was appropriate to comment on the report because "all this transpired well before Alpha came on the scene and much of it is internal to MSHA."

Federal and independent investigators blamed the explosion on company negligence and a leadership team that recklessly valued profit over safety. They said the explosion started as a methane spark along the mine's longwall and that faulty water sprays and inadequate control of explosive coal dust enabled the small ignition to erupt into a huge blast.

"If inspectors had walked into that section that day, that mine would have been shut down, without question," Main said during a conference call with reporters. Massey "engaged in practices ... to prevent MSHA from finding (dangerous) conditions."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who co-wrote the Mine Safety Protection Act with the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, said the entire system failed the dead miners, including Congress for its "failure to maintain adequate and experienced staffing at MSHA."

Thomas F. Hoffman, president of energy communications consulting firm Carbon Communications Consultants, said inexperience could have hampered inspectors.

Coal "was for many years an older industry," he said. "People with experience were leaving, they were older and were eligible for retirement. Physically, these are challenging jobs and people get tired.

"But this idea that Congress can wave a wand and solve this problem is not as easy as you think," he said. "To find people willing to go underground and who have a modicum of experience is not easy."

Main did not provide budget figures or the number of employees who retired.

Hoffman noted that a high volume of violations does not necessarily mean inspectors are doing their jobs well. Big mines are cited more than small mines, simply because of their size, he said, and districts with more underground mining, such as southern West Virginia, are likely to issue more citations than districts focused on surface mining, which require fewer workers.

The report -- more than 200 pages long -- contains about 20 pages of recommendations for regulatory and administrative changes. Main said officials are reviewing the report.

MSHA already made changes, he said, from increased inspections to additional training. He said MSHA is simplifying its inspector manual and clarifying policies.

Main would not say whether the report will result in disciplinary action for any MSHA employees.

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