MSHA Announces Plans to Improve W. Va. Mine Inspections

July 6, 2007

Federal inspectors missed obvious problems and failed to follow procedures at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and two other underground coal mines where 19 men died in high-profile accidents last year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration said.

Numerous steps are planned to correct problems MSHA uncovered during reviews of its actions in the three accidents. One is the creation of an internal accountability office charged with avoiding lapses in enforcement policies and procedures, the agency said.

“MSHA’s internal review teams identified a number of deficiencies in our enforcement programs, which I found deeply disturbing,” director Richard Stickler said. “The creation of the Office of Accountability … 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.”

MSHA’s internal review found that didn’t happen at Sago, Massey Energy Co.’s Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County or the Darby Mine in Kentucky.

At the Alma mine, for instance, inspectors missed a majority of the violations the agency later determined contributed to the deaths of two miners in a conveyer belt fire Jan. 19, 2006. Inspectors failed to exercise their authority in a manner that demonstrated an appreciation for the importance of strict enforcement of federal law and failed to conduct inspections in a manner that reliably detected violations, the agency said.

Massey Energy is based in Richmond, Va.

“The number and nature of the issues identified in the inspections at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 indicates significant lapses on the part of MSHA inspectors, field office supervisors and District 4 management,” MSHA said. “Effective oversight by supervision and management would have identified and possibly prevented many of these lapses.”

Likewise, federal inspectors failed to address potential hazards at Darby before a methane gas explosion in an abandoned, sealed area of the mine killed five miners in May 2006. Specifically, inspectors did not always issue citations after finding faulty seal construction, MSHA said.

Although the internal review identified “significant deficiencies” in the agency’s actions at the Darby mine, it concluded those problems did not cause the May 20, 2006, disaster.

At Sago, MSHA faulted itself for setting the strength requirement for so-called alternative seals too low. A methane gas explosion in a sealed area of the mine destroyed 10 seals and allowed blast forces to enter the mine’s active workings. Thirteen miners were unable to escape after the explosion and all but one died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

MSHA also determined that its personnel failed to follow established inspection procedures, resulting in deficient enforcement. The accident also pointed out numerous areas where MSHA’s ability to respond to an emergency could be improved.

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