3:48pm

Thu March 3, 2011
The Two-Way

Mine Enforcement Weak Before Deadly Blast, Audits Show

Internal audits at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reveal inadequate, incomplete and insufficient mine safety inspections and enforcement in the two years before last year's deadly mine explosion in West Virginia.

A summary of the audits was discovered by Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette, who writes here that "the findings mirror those of numerous MSHA internal reviews conducted after major mining disasters over the last 20 years."

The summary was submitted quietly to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and a Senate subcommittee just two weeks before the Upper Big Branch mine disaster took 29 lives. It was kept under wraps until now.

MSHA's Office of Accountability conducted audits of agency field offices in 2009 and 2010.

The audits reported the failure of supervisors in some field offices to adequately review inspection documents and adequately evaluate the gravity of safety citations, including those indicating negligence on the part of mine operators.

Documentation of violations and inspection reports was so poor in some field offices that enforcement actions could not be supported if challenged.

And inspections in an unspecified number of field offices were incomplete and failed to result in citations that reflected the seriousness of mine safety problems.

House Republicans reacted strongly to the findings at a hearing this morning before the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main was the only witness.

"You've mentioned that MSHA was using every tool at your disposal," noted Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.). "And you've asked here now for more legislation to give you more tools, yet it seems...the failure is not at having the right tools in the toolbox, but in the people using all the tools in the toolbox."

In a news conference later, Main acknowledged that these and other reviews "find shortcomings." In this case, Main said, more training for inspectors and supervisors was the solution and was implemented.

Main was asked whether the weak enforcement described in the audit report might have contributed to the Upper Big Branch explosion.

"All of that happened well before the explosion," Main responded. "There's nothing I know of in these audits" that relates to the explosion.

The actual Office of Accountability audits remain secreted away in government files. It's not clear which field offices were audited or whether the office supervising the Upper Big Branch mine was among them.

Main would not commit today to public release of the audits. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.