Five months before the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in Utah, mine officials told a federal inspector about a massive "bump" that blew out two entire coal pillars.
But the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration never investigated the accident.
MSHA officials were concerned about the dangers of Murray Energy's plan to remove more coal pillars that were holding up the roof of the 2,000-foot-deep mine. But agency inspectors who visited the mine never specifically examined this active "retreat mining."
And once six miners became trapped by a catastrophic mine collapse on Aug. 6, 2007, federal officials allowed the miners' families to be misled. Top MSHA officials didn't correct incomplete and misleading company statements that gave the families a "false sense of hope."
Last week, an independent review of the Crandall Canyon disaster found these and more among a long list of major mistakes by federal regulators charged with protecting the health and safety of the nation's miners.
It was the fourth such stinging review for MSHA in the last two years, following agency interview reviews of the deaths at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia and the Darby mine in Kentucky.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said it was "alarming that such lapses in oversight could have happened so soon" after the three major coal industry accidents in 2006.
"These tragic events provide a very clear demonstration of what has happened to MSHA over the last seven years under the Bush administration," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union. "It has become a coddler of coal companies, not an enforcer of law and regulation."
Roberts and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said it's time to look beyond the Bush administration, and hope for new management at MSHA.
"The independent investigative report on Crandall Canyon confirms that the reforms now underway need to be completed and that [the] next administration must provide the agency with sufficient budgetary resources and accountable leadership to ensure that the health and safety of miners is always MSHA's uppermost priority," Rahall said.
Major lapses at MSHA are nothing new, and didn't begin when George W. Bush became president in January 2001.
Over the last 20 years, reports on each of the nation's major mining accidents have found that MSHA inspectors overlooked major violations of safety rules intended to protect miners.
Over and over, MSHA officials missed safety violations, did not take harsh enough enforcement action or ensure that problems were fixed, according to government reports.
Seven internal MSHA reviews published between 1990 and 2003 found that agency supervisors did not properly train inspectors or make MSHA requirements clear to them. Top agency managers did not do enough to ensure that far-flung district offices were doing a good job, the reviews found.
In a response to the Crandall Canyon review, acting MSHA chief Richard Stickler said his agency welcomes chances to improve and has already implemented many of the recommendations.
But such statements have come after most of the previous MSHA reviews.
Just last year, Stickler described the findings of the Sago, Aracoma and Darby interview reviews as "deeply disturbing." He said the reports "show an unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight that will not be tolerated."
U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who commissioned the unusual Crandall Canyon review by two retired MSHA officials, made no such comments this time.
In a short prepared statement, Chao noted that the review "reported on the circumstances surrounding the tragedy and steps that should be taken to help prevent a recurrence."
"Over the last two years, MSHA has implemented numerous improvements to better protect the safety and health of America's miners," the statement said.
The statement referred to the hiring of more than 300 new coal inspectors, finalizing six new rules and proposing four other regulations.
Chao didn't mention that the new inspectors would mostly fill vacancies created by previous Bush administration budget cuts. Her statement didn't say that the new rules were in large part forced by a new law that Bush and congressional Republicans initially opposed. It didn't note that many of the rules were based on initiatives that had been dropped by MSHA soon after Bush took office.
Previously, MSHA internal reviews of mine disasters often amounted to almost checklists. Agency teams listed specific laws, rules or policies and described whether they were or weren't followed in the accident being studied. There was little overall analysis, no commentary that explained broad-stroke problems with the agency.
But the Crandall Canyon review provides a much broader diagnosis of what's wrong with MSHA, why and what can be done about it.
First of all, the Crandall Canyon review concludes that "corrective action" plans put together following previous MSHA internal reviews were mostly paperwork exercise that did little to improve safety.
"Increased documentation does not eliminate these problems," the report said. "Many inspection personnel stated that the increased documentation distracted them from their primary goal of conducting inspections, lowered morale, and has not enhanced the safety of miners."
The review noted that in July 2007, a two-day meeting was held for MSHA managers to discuss the Sago, Aracoma and Darby internal reviews.
"The Crandall Canyon Independent Review Team identified some of the deficiencies discussed at the meeting also occurred during the rescue operation at the Crandall Canyon Mine, which was less than a month after the meeting," the report said.
The Crandall Canyon review also provides numerous snapshots of how budget cuts and the resulting staffing reductions - as well as the Bush administration's focus on "compliance assistance" over enforcement - hampered the work of rank-and-file MSHA personnel.
For example, a lack of inspectors pressed MSHA specialists in roof control, ventilation and other issues into service to try to complete mandatory quarterly underground mine inspections. That practice not only kept specialists from doing their normal job of reviewing complicated mining plans, but put them doing regular inspections that they might not have the specific training to do properly.
And in MSHA District 9, where Crandall Canyon was located, it meant that agency officials had trouble just reviewing new mining plans, let alone doing required six-month reviews of existing ones.
"I'm lucky to get ... with the diminishing staffing that I've been having over the recent years, I'm lucky just to get plans out in some sort of timely manner without even considering a six-month review of a plan," District 9 roof control supervisor Billy Owens told the independent review team.
The internal review also took on concerns that MSHA buckled in the face of political pressure from Crandall Canyon mine owner Bob Murray.
The report concluded that, over a seven-year period, there were three instances where Murray made threats against MSHA personnel. In all three cases, MSHA personnel were removed from enforcement responsibilities over Murray's mines.
"However, there is no direct evidence that links their removal to Murray," the report said. It noted that two employees who had run-ins with Murray have actually been promoted since those incidents.
Still, the report found that MSHA's major problems were at least partly the fault of politics, or at least the real-world result of Washington debates over whether government regulation should be tougher or weaker in dangerous industries like mining.
MSHA budget and staffing cuts, the report found, came at a time when coal industry activity was on the rise.
During Bush's first term, underground hours worked in the coal industry increased by 15 percent. At the same time, budget and staffing cuts reduced MSHA inspection hours by 18 percent.
"By not replacing retiring inspectors or hiring additional inspectors, MSHA failed to react to the significant increase in workload," the report found.
MSHA also began to emphasize compliance and training assistance, putting them ahead of inspections and investigations in a budget document mission statement.
"This new direction resulted in such an overwhelming number of different special emphasis programs, compliance assistance programs, and initiatives that an enormous amount of the inspectors' focus was diverted away from completion of regular inspections," the report said.
"Although these compliance activities certainly have value and can provide a positive impact on the coal industry, MSHA does not possess the staffing or funding to effectively conduct mandated inspections along with a multitude of additional activities."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 348-1702.
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