Panel Faults MSHA Enforcement Prior to Explosion

By JOHN RABY | March 26, 2012

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration could have prevented or reduced the likelihood of an April 2010 explosion in southern West Virginia that killed 29 miners, according to a report by a team of experts released Friday.

The independent team was appointed by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health a month after the explosion to examine MSHA’s internal review of its actions at the Upper Big Branch mine. The explosion was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

The report says if MSHA had done timely enforcement of laws and regulations prior to the explosion, “it would have lessened the chances of – and possibly could have prevented” the explosion.

MSHA’s internal review released earlier this month concluded that there was no evidence that the disaster was caused by failures by federal inspectors who missed problems or failed to inspect the areas where they exist at the mine in the 18 months prior to the explosion.

The MSHA review acknowledged multiple failures by field staff in MSHA’s largest region, southern West Virginia’s District 4. It also said their effectiveness was compromised by internal communication problems and by federal budget cuts that had created staffing shortages, inexperience and a lack of sufficient training and managerial oversight.

Four investigations have concluded the blast was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by a deadly buildup of methane and coal dust, and allowed to spread because of clogged and broken water sprayers.

MSHA director Joe Main has said blame for the disaster continues to rest squarely with then-mine owner Massey Energy, which was bought last summer by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.

“MSHA is committed to rooting out and addressing critical issues within the agency head-on, and agrees more needs to be done to ensure full and effective enforcement of the Mine Act,” Main said in a statement Friday. “MSHA cannot keep miners safe alone – mine operators must commit themselves to safety and health.”

The mine’s former superintendent, Gary May, is set to plead March 29 to a charge of conspiracy to defraud the federal government and is apparently cooperating with prosecutors in the continuing criminal investigation. He’s accused, among other things, of disabling a methane gas monitor, falsifying safety records and tipping off miners underground about surprise inspections.

Former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover is appealing his conviction of lying to investigators about the 2010 explosion. He was sentenced in February to three years in prison in what a prosecutor called one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case.

Regarding the initial methane ignition, “if MSHA enforcement personnel had completed required enforcement actions during at least one of the four (prior) UBB inspections, it is unlikely that a roof fall would have occurred and that airflow would have been reduced as a consequence,” the independent panel’s report said. “With the proper quantity of air, there would not have been an accumulation of methane, thereby eliminating the fuel sources for the gas explosion.”

And dangerous accumulations of explosive coal dust would have been rendered inert, or the mine would have been idled, had appropriate actions been taken in the months before the explosion, the report said.

Had the MSHA internal review addressed the question of whether a more effective enforcement effort could have prevented the explosion, “it would be in a better position to help MSHA define and prioritize its recommendations and succeed in implementing them,” the independent panel said.

Members of the panel included former science adviser Lewis Wade, retired NIOSH physical scientist Michael Sapko, Stanford Law School professor Alison Morantz and Jeffery Kohler, director of mine safety research at NIOSH.

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