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Published: Thursday, October 04, 2007
Page: 1A
Byline: KEN WARD JR.

Federal regulators across the country are behind schedule to complete required safety inspections at the nation's coal mines, government officials confirmed this week.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials revealed that missed inspections are not confined to the agency's district office in Southern West Virginia.

This year, other MSHA districts are also lagging behind the agency's typical completion rate of more than 90 percent, officials confirmed.

The exact extent and magnitude of the problem are still not clear. MSHA officials were still compiling numbers on missed inspections in other districts.

MSHA officials said they are shifting inspectors among offices and authorizing large overtime payments to try to stem the problem.

"We're going to try to do everything we can to get it done," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine health and safety. "It's going to be a real chore, but we're going to try."

MSHA officials confirmed the broader extent of the uncompleted inspections after The Charleston Gazette questioned agency testimony downplaying the matter at a Tuesday Senate hearing in Washington.

Since 1969, federal regulators have been required to inspect all underground mines in their entirety at least four times per year. For years, MSHA's written policies have interpreted that to require complete regular inspections of all underground mines at least once per quarter.

Previously, the Gazette had reported that MSHA was behind schedule to complete required quarterly inspections at two West Virginia mines where workers died earlier this year. MSHA records indicate the agency is behind schedule to finish quarterly reviews at more than 60 percent of the active underground mines in its District 4, which covers Southern West Virginia.

On Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked Stricklin if there were similar problems at MSHA's District 9 office, where six miners and three rescuers died in Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in August.

"District 9 was pretty close to being on target," Stricklin told Murray.

However, MSHA records indicated that agency inspectors had not completed required quarterly inspections at 14 of the 22 active underground mines in District 9.

At 10 of those 14 mines, inspectors had started - but not yet completed - required reviews for the third quarter of calendar year 2007, which ended on Sept. 30, MSHA records show.

If inspections at those 10 mines were counted as completed, the district's rate for underground mines would be about 82 percent - still nearly 10 percentage points worse than MSHA typically reported in recent years.

MSHA's District 9 covers coal-producing states west of the Mississippi and is the agency's largest coal-producing district, records show.

Stricklin said District 9 may have fallen behind in August, when large numbers of staff there were involved in rescue efforts at Crandall Canyon.

Likewise, Stricklin said, inspectors in other districts were pulled off regular inspections to do reviews focused on highwall collapses and retreat mining after multiple-death accidents in Maryland and West Virginia earlier this year.

"If they're not completed, that's one of the reasons," Stricklin said during a phone interview Tuesday night.

But Stricklin said MSHA has also been hampered as it works to fill inspection spots that were created to replace jobs that were cut over the last six years.

Currently, trainee inspectors nearly outnumber full-fledged MSHA inspectors, Stricklin said. MSHA's coal division has 263 inspectors and 256 trainees, he said.

Since the Bush administration took office, MSHA's staffing cuts have hit Southern West Virginia harder than any other agency office. Total district staffing dropped by 13 percent between 2002 and 2006, twice the level of the agency-wide staffing reduction, MSHA data shows.

By September 2005, District 4 managers were meeting with agency national staff "informing them of a need for additional inspection recourse," according to an agency internal report.

In District 4, MSHA officials adopted a policy to perform spot inspections instead of the required, regular quarterly inspections.

Stricklin said the policy was not his idea and was devised before he took over as the coal division chief in mid-October 2006.

Stricklin said the plan was devised by Bob Hardman when he became District 4 manager in August 2006, with input from John Langton, who was acting coal administrator at the time.

"They basically came up with a plan before I got there," Stricklin said. He said he allowed the program to continue after he took over.

"I didn't say anything to [Hardman] one way or the other, but I didn't stop him from doing anything he wanted to do," Stricklin said.

But Stricklin said he has taken the blame, because Hardman works for him. "I didn't want to leave him hanging out there," Stricklin said.

"District 4 was in crisis when he arrived," he said. "We just need people down there. I still don't have enough people in place in District 4 to do complete inspections."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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