Connecting the dots: 'compliance assistance' to 'destined to fail'

Tom Bethell of The Mountain Eagle urges us (and policymakers) to read the independent investigation of MSHA and the Crandall Canyon disaster, by two former MSHA District Managers, to understand how the Secretary of Labor's demand for 'compliance assistance' programs set the groundwork for the deadly workplace conditions for our nation's mine workers. 

Posted with permission from The Mountain Eagle (Whitesburg, KY), "Destined to Fail"

by Tom Bethell

Exactly a year ago â on August 6, 2007 â the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah caved in, trapping six coal miners. Here in eastern Kentucky weâre a long way from Utah, but any mine disaster feels close to home. And we know that the odds of carrying out a successful rescue are never good. So we watched the media coverage intently â growing increasingly irate at the mineâs my-way-or-the-highway owner, Robert Murray, and increasingly fearful for the courageous rescuers who wouldnât have had to put their lives on the line in a lethal environment if Murray Energy had played by the rules.

The end, ten days later, was cruel: another violent outburst, killing three of the rescuers â including a federal mine inspector â and severely injuring six others. Nine men died because of one manâs insistence on pulling more coal out of a mountain than the mountain could safely yield.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) does some things badly, but one thing it does well is investigate tragedies after the fact. MSHA has a long tradition of issuing reports that are models of thoroughness and objectivity. The report issued by the agency on July 24 is in that tradition. In painstaking detail, it pins the blame for the disaster on fatally flawed engineering and a company determined to pull more coal than even its deficient plan called for. Moreover, MSHA does not absolve itself of blame. Although Murray Energy failed to report three outbursts prior to August 6 that might have prompted diligent regulators to halt production, regulators of that kind were conspicuous by their absence. MSHA shouldnât have signed off on Murrayâs mining plan in the first place. Delinquency, not diligence, marked every step that led to a preventable tragedy.

MSHAâS official report is valuable â but itâs a second report, written by independent investigators Joe Pavlovich and Ernie Teaster, that should be required reading for policymakers if thereâs to be any hope of putting MSHA back on track when the Bush years finally grind to an end.

Two weeks after the disaster, with the Labor Department taking flak for the way MSHA deferred to Murray during the rescue attempt, Secretary Elaine Chao (who hadnât troubled to go to Utah) acceded to demands for an independent review of MSHAâs actions before and after August 6. The investigators chosen were both veteran MSHA district managers, since retired: Pavlovich, a Kentuckian, investigated the Sago Mine disaster in 2006, and anyone who has had the privilege of working with him can testify that heâs tops. But no one knew whether he and Teaster would really be free to conduct an unfettered investigation.

They did. And their wide-ranging review makes it clear that the years 2001-2008 have been bad ones for an agency which â like FEMA â has life-and-death responsibilities and should be assured of commensurate resources.

The report depicts an agency hobbled by lax management, especially but not exclusively at the district level; reduced staffing at a time when coal production has been climbing and inspection activities should have been keeping pace; and a misguided strategy to get around staffing problems by emphasizing âcompliance assistanceâ and âspecial emphasis activitiesâ instead of law enforcement.

Reading the report, you canât help connecting the dots between what happened in Washington, starting in 2001, and the tragedy in Utah six years later. Bushâs budgeteers  had no more qualms about underfunding MSHA than about gutting FEMA. The results were similar. MSHA lost veteran inspectors to attrition and didnât replace them. As staffing levels dropped, so did morale. District managers got the message: Make do with less and donât make waves. For inspectors, the resulting emphasis on âcompliance assistanceâ meant spending more time struggling with paperwork, much of it meaningless, and less time making thorough inspections. Inspectors, underpaid and in many cases inexperienced, were never actually told to quit enforcing the law â they just got little help and much hindrance.

MSHA, in its report on Crandall Canyon, states that the mine was âdestined to fail.â That same chilling phrase describes MSHA today.

Itâs time for a reality check. Regardless of public concerns about the links between coal and global warming, weâre going to keep mining the stuff. Renegade operators like Murray Energy are going to cut corners when they can, miners are going to be at risk, and the need for tough law enforcement is not going away. Come next January, we hope the new occupant of the White House will have the sense to ask Pavlovich and Teaster for a wish-list for MSHA. Whatever they recommend, make it happen â and fast.

The editorial was written by The Mountain Eagle Contributing Editor Tom Bethell, who has covered coal for the paper off and on for nearly 40 years. Based in Washington, D.C., he is also the author of The Hurricane Creek Massacre, a book about a 1970 mine disaster, and is a former research director of the United Mine Workers of America. He was part of a team that investigated the Sago mine disaster in 2006. 

More like this

by Tom Bethell (Posted with permission from The Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg, KY) Just when you think youâve seen it all, somebody in the Bush administration comes up with another way to compromise somebody elseâs rights. The latest example is Richard Stickler, director of the Mine Safety and Health…
"Destined to fail."  That is the troubling conclusion of MSHA's 12-month investigation of the coal mine disaster at the Crandall Canyon coal mine that killed nine men last August.  They were: Kerry Allred, 58; Dale Black, 48; Don Erickson, 50; MSHA's Gary Jensen, 53; Brandon Kimber, 29; Luis…
by Tom Bethell                                                                                                      (Posted with permission from The Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg, KY) As we go to press…
The Mountain Eagle's Tom Bethell recounts a 1986 coal mining disaster in Queensland, Australia which involved an explosion in an abandoned, sealed area which caused the death of 12 miners.  Its similarities to the 2006 Sago tragedy end there because, as Bethell writes: In the wake of that…

While Tom is right that Joe and Ernie did a fine job, their mission was limited by the Secretary of Labor to investigating the conduct of MSHA conduct. There were no interviews with the staff of the Office of the Solicitor, Deputy Secretary or Secretary who might have been on the phone with the Assistant Secretary during the Crandall Canyon incident, discussing issues of legal authority and media reaction. It is the personnel at this level, and their allies in industry and on Capital Hill, who set the compliance assistance priority and overall budget of the agency. That is one reason the public needs independent accident investigations, as the House of Representatives determined when it passed the S-MINER Act. The Department is very resistant to such iindependent nvestigations, as Tom knows from his experience working with Davitt McAteer, Joe Pavlovich, Celeste Monforton and others to an independent evaluation of the Sago accident, and as both the Senate and House staff learned during their efforts to understand what happened at Crandall Canyon. We can do better. In the meantime, lets be careful to ensure that the responsibility for these problems is placed where it belongs.

By Pete Galvin (not verified) on 05 Aug 2008 #permalink