Controversy over Mine Safety Oversight and Explosion Investigation

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Problems continue to emerge for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia. Despite having a former union official, Joe Main, running the MSHA, the agency allowed Upper Big Branch to accumulate more than 1,300 safety violations since 2005, and it did not take serious action against the mining operation or its owner, Massey Energy. MSHA has a bumpy history. When Republicans are in the White House, it is usually led by representatives of the mining industry, but when Democrats are in charge, they turn to union safety experts.

In addition, the MSHA official tapped to lead the investigation of what went wrong in West Virginia has sparked criticism. The person selected, Norman Page, is the MSHA district manager who oversaw the mine’s inspections—and who did the same thing for for Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Kentucky, where an explosion killed five miners on May 20, 2006.
“Does it concern me that a district manager who was involved in a previous devastating accident where multiple problems were not picked up by MSHA is running the investigation? Absolutely, that is troublesome,” Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, an industry newsletter, told The Washington Post. Smith believes the agency should use someone from outside MSHA who knows about mining and safety operations.
It also has been reported that the agency’s computers failed to transmit a warning about safety violations to Upper Big Branch officials and to inform them to fix problems within 90 days.
Meanwhile, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has ordered a separate probe to be headed by mine health and safety expert Davitt McAteer.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
U.S. Mine Safety Agency Faulted on Choice of Man to Lead Probe into Explosion (by Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post)
Officials: Computer Error Affected Mine Scrutiny (by Sam Hananel, Associated Press)
Joe Main (AllGov)


Fellow Responsible Journalist 14 years ago
Noel, it is Upper Big BRANCH, not Upper Big Ranch. Also, just MSHA, not THE MSHA. Of the 1,300 violations, how many were considered S&S? That is the story here. Lastly, you don't mention that MSHA's computer glitch would not have placed the mine in POV status as of the date of the blast; in fact, the mine showed a 65% S&S improvement on its own during that following 90 days.

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