Federal mine safety regulators have said they don't know if they ever gave Massey Energy written technical reports that recommended ways to avoid methane problems that have been pinpointed as one of the causes of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration disclosed the potential problem in correspondence sent to Congress just one day after MSHA released the report of its investigation into the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
MSHA chief Joe Main wrote to House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., in response to concerns Kline raised last month about Upper Big Branch and about the circumstances surrounding the April 2011 death of a silver miner in Idaho.
"Our preliminary review reveals that MSHA verbally communicated the results of the technical support investigations, including the recommendations, to both operators at close-out conferences following the investigations," Main told Kline in a Dec. 7 letter. "We are still trying to determine if the mine operators received copies of the technical support reports at the time of the investigations."
At Upper Big Branch, MSHA experts had outlined a variety of steps Massey could take to stop methane leaks from the floor of the Upper Big Branch Mine, following a review of a methane ignition in 1997 and two large methane leaks in 2003 and 2004.
MSHA now believes those recommendations were never followed by Massey, and agency investigators concluded methane leaking from the floor ignited the explosion on April 5, 2010.
"The mine has a history of methane incidents on prior longwall panels," the MSHA report said. "These incidents put the operator on notice for methane hazards on the longwall face."
MSHA cited Massey with "moderate negligence" related to the methane leaks, noting that the company did not implement agency recommendations - such as drilling de-gasification holes or increasing fresh-air flow to the mine face - after the earlier methane incidents.
At the Lucky Friday silver mine in Idaho, public radio's Northwest News Network discovered after a fatal roof fall in April that a 2008 MSHA report documenting roof control problems and recommendations for dealing with them had not been provided to mine operator Hecla Mining.
Kline, in a Nov. 30 letter to Main, questioned what he called a "lapse of communication" between MSHA and the mining operators it is supposed to regulate.
"MSHA's failure to transmit these reports raises concerns about potentially systemic problems within MSHA's district offices for both the metal/nonmetal and coal mine divisions," Kline wrote. "Such reports contain important technical recommendations that could improve miner safety. However, this information is useless if the agency fails to put it into the hands of the mine operators."
Kline asked MSHA to investigate its procedures, and determine whether any additional safety reports have not been provided to the mine operators in question, and to examine agency practices to ensure such reports are provided.
Main responded, "I have initiated a complete review of our procedures and protocols for drafting and transmitting technical support reports to ensure that important safety information is shared with all appropriate parties in a timely manner. That review will include the updating of any policies and procedures to ensure that reports are transmitted as expeditiously as possible."
Problems in which MSHA field offices didn't work closely enough with the agency's technical support division were previously outlined in an internal review of the October 2000 Martin County, Ky., slurry spill and an independent report on the August 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster in Utah.
MSHA officials have said that questions about their handling of the previous methane incidents at Upper Big Branch are among the issues about agency performance that are being examined by an MSHA interview review team that has not yet completed its work.
But on Friday, Kline raised questions about the Upper Big Branch internal review in a letter to MSHA noting the departure of the review team's leader, Jack Kuzar, who retired from the agency.
"It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the head of an internal review team to depart in the midst of such an important examination," Kline wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "That such a departure occurred 16 months into the review and as the final report was nearing completion is also troubling."
At the same time, a lawyer for the widows of two miners who died in the January 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Mine continue to raise questions about ties between MSHA employees and Massey mine managers in a federal court lawsuit against the agency.
In appealing the dismissal of that case, lawyer Bruce Stanley notes that MSHA's own internal review at the Aracoma Mine noted the potential for conflict of interest among agency enforcement personnel in Southern West Virginia.
The Aracoma internal review team concluded, among other things, that MSHA efforts at industry-friendly "compliance assistance" may have hampered inspections and enforcement at the Logan County mine prior to the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.
"The internal review team believes that some of the identified deficiencies may have stemmed from the relationship that MSHA developed with the Massey Energy Company representatives in early 2001," the internal review report said.
The report noted MSHA personnel "worked closely" with Massey management to develop miner training programs, but that "using enforcement personnel in this manner ... may have created a conflict of interest that, over time, may have affected the level of scrutiny that MSHA provided."
Stanley argued in a brief to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that MSHA personnel, "may have failed to take appropriate corrective actions or even conduct promised inspections at all because of conflict of interest created by their close relationships with, and lack of independence from, the operator and its managers."
In response, MSHA lawyers wrote that Bragg and Hatfield "died in undeniably tragic circumstances in a mine fire caused by the negligence" of Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co.
"The Mine Act explicitly emphasizes that responsibility for safety is on the mine and the miners themselves, not on MSHA ... MSHA owned no duty of care to plaintiffs' husbands here," MSHA lawyers wrote.
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