Federal Inspectors Complete Safety Reviews of Nation’s Mines

December 15, 2008

For the first time, federal inspectors have completed mandatory safety reviews of all the nation’s mines within a single year, the head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said last week.

Mine safety chief Richard E. Stickler said the federal agency added more than 360 inspectors and paid $10 million in overtime to get the inspections completed.

“I have to believe the increased inspections are making mines safer,” Stickler told The Associated Press. “You never know the accidents that you prevent. But certainly when you find hazardous conditions, and you require those conditions to be mitigated, you have to believe you have saved lived.”

So far this year, 49 miners have been killed on the job, down from 67 last year and 73 the year before. Of this year’s deaths, 27 were in coal mines and 22 in mines that produce materials like salt, sand, copper and gold.

Stickler said completing the inspections was a milestone — the first time in the agency’s 31-year history that every mandated regular review was done within a year. Federal law requires all underground mines to be inspected four times a year and every surface mine twice a year.

Critics weren’t impressed.

“It’s tough to get too excited about a government agency doing what it is statutorily required to do, though with this agency under this administration we’ve been forced to take small improvements whenever we can get them,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

Mine inspections became a focal point following a series of mining disasters from West Virginia to Utah.

A report last year by the inspector general found that the mine safety agency had failed to carry out inspections at 107 of the 731 underground coal mines operating in 2006, or 15 percent of the total. That year was one of the deadliest for coal miners in more than a decade, with 47 killed on the job.

Faced with criticism from mine safety advocates, Stickler announced a plan last year to complete all mandated inspections at the nation’s 14,800 active mining operations.

Over the past two years, the federal agency’s crew of inspectors that oversee coal mines grew to 757, while those who monitor other types of mines grew to 392.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Stickler said inspectors issued nearly 167,000 citations this year and nearly doubled the amount of time they ordinarily spend at mine sites.

Smith claims inspectors in the past have rushed through the required reviews in order to get them done quickly or have brought in inspectors from other parts of the country who have no familiarity with the mines they’re reviewing.

“We’re checking with our local union safety officers to see if that shoddy practice occurred this time as well,” he said.

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