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Published: Sunday, December 02, 2007
Page: 1A
Byline: KEN WARD JR.

Between 2002 and 2006, the number of coal-mining operations nationwide increased by 9 percent. At the same time, the number of federal inspectors was cut by 18 percent.

Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration field offices were left strapped for staff.

The result?

Agency officials never conducted more than 150 required inspections at more than 100 underground mines across the coalfields, according to a government audit.

MSHA officials not only missed required inspections, but they misled agency managers - and the public - about inspection completion rates.

The lapses were most serious in Southern West Virginia, where 85 percent of the missed inspections occurred, according to an audit by the Labor Department' inspector general.

"Decreasing inspection resources during a period of increasing mining activity made it more difficult to complete the required inspections, and management did not place adequate emphasis on ensuring the inspections were completed and the reported completion rate was accurate," the report concluded.

The report, issued late month, backed up reports of missed inspections by the Sunday Gazette-Mail and complaints about MSHA failures by Sen. Robert C. Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, both D-W.Va.

Byrd said last week, "The IG report confirmed what many of us had suspected after Sago and Alma, that years of budget cuts and neglect by the Bush administration's Department of Labor have needlessly endangered the lives of coal miners."

Rahall said, "This IG report unfortunately confirms, once again, the disturbing results of this administration's failure to protect our nation's underground coal miners and it gives further credence to legislation I am supporting in the House that will, among other things, help to provide additional, sorely needed inspection manpower for MSHA."

Byrd and Rahall began pressuring MSHA after the Gazette-Mail reports about deaths at two Southern West Virginia mines where MSHA had not completed required inspections. Agency records show MSHA was behind schedule to complete inspections at nearly two-thirds of the underground mines in the region.

Investigators from the inspector general's office found MSHA missed required quarterly inspections at 107 of 731 underground mines nationwide, or at about 15 percent of those mines.

In MSHA District 4, which covers Southern West Virginia, the inspector general found missed inspections at 85 of 165 underground mines.

The inspector general examined the number of MSHA inspectors nationwide and in local offices per mechanized mining unit. A mechanized mining unit, or MMU, is a major piece of mining equipment and is a proxy for judging the amount of mining activity that requires MSHA inspections.

In 2002, MSHA had 0.75 inspectors per MMU. By 2006, the agency had just 0.56 inspectors per MMU, a decrease of 25 percent.

The staffing situation was worst in Southern West Virginia, where MSHA had just 0.44 inspectors per MMU, according to the IG report.

In early October, MSHA chief Richard Stickler announced a "100 Percent Plan" to catch up on required inspections.

Stickler said at the time that he would temporarily transfer inspectors and pay large amounts of overtime to "complete 100 percent of mandated regular inspections for all coal mines in the country."

Byrd noted that he secured $10 million in new money to help MSHA catch up on required inspections, but that President Bush has vetoed a funding bill containing that money.

"I implore the White House to stop blocking these funds, and to sign the labor appropriations bill into law," Byrd said.

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

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