MSHA’s Assistant Secretary announced that he is creating an Office of Accountability to provide
“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.”
The announcement came with the release of three internal investigation reports which Asst. Sec. Stickler said
“identified a number of deficiencies in our enforcement programs, which I found deeply disturbing.”
The internal reviews on the Sago (203 pages), Alma (233 pages) and Darby (214 pages) were conducted by MSHA staff who were not involved previously in inspections or other activities at the mines, including managers from MSHA’s Metal/Non-metal Mining division. Some may wonder whether individuals who also work at MSHA can evaluate objectively the actions of their colleagues. Although this model has potential limitations, I believe that if the right individuals are conducting the investigation, and they are given full authority to ask the tough questions and require answers, it can be effective. Outsiders like GAO or the IG have a steep learning curve, and it may be too great for their investigators to get answers, or to even know what questions to ask. MSHA employees, like George Fesak, who led these three internal reviews, has been around the agency a long time, knows the ins-and-outs, and where the skeletons are buried. The individuals conducting MSHA’s internal reviews know from the start that they won’t make friends as they dig through MSHA’s dirt, and will likely make a few enemies.
I haven’t read the 600+ pages of the reports yet, but always reliable Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette offers readers some of the reviewers’ findings, including:
At the Aracoma mine, the internal reviewers said:
- we “…are unaware of a similar situation in which health and safety hazards were so prevalent, and the conditions in the mine so deplorable, yet MSHA personnel at so many levels failed to follow established agency policies…”
- the missing ventilation walls “were obvious and easily identifiable…[yet] inspectors traveled through the affected area on several occassions and did not recognize and cite these violations.”
- some inspectors said that “MSHA’s compliance assistance efforts impacted the way inspections were performed” with several inspectors saying they felt “that if a higher level of enforcement had been implemented, the actions would not have been supported by at least one of the field office supervisors.”
At the Darby mine:
- “…inspectors overlooked unsafe roof conditions, inadequate ventilation, and the operator’s failure to conduct pre-shift examinations.”
At the Sago mine:
- “…the review team found 16 instances in 2005 when MSHA inspectors should have cited safety problems as willing or knowing violations.”
- “MSHA inspectors repeatedly did not examine emergency breathing devices, check gas-monitoring gear, or discover missing lightning protection equipment.”
Go here to read Ken Ward’s full story on the MSHA internal reviews.
These kinds of comprehensive internal reviews are not something new for MSHA. They’ve been conducted a couple of dozen times in the agency’s history, including after disasters at the Pyro Mining Company (Union County, 1989), Fire Creek No 1 mine (McDowell County, WV 1991), Blacksville No 1 mine (Monongalia County, WV 1992), Southmountain Coal No 3 mine (Wise County, WV, 1992), Jim Walters Resources No 5 (Brookwood, Alabama, 2001). As Ken Ward reported in January 2006, these internal investigations consistently identify lapses in enforcement that may have contributed to the subsequent fatalities.
Update (7/1/07): In response to MSHA’s internal review reports for the Sago, Alma and Darby mines, Senator Robert C. Bryd (D-WV) said,
“For too long, MSHA has served as compliance assistants for mine operators while letting their core responsibilities of safety oversight wither. I take no personal pleasure in pointing out that if the agency had been doing its job properly, most of the miners we lost this year and last would still be with us.”
Read more at the Sunday (Charleston) Gazette.