Monday, January 30, 2006

True Leadership Inspires Others To Follow

W.Va. Governor Joe Manchin proposed and and state legislators quickly passed a series of laws last week to strengthen coal mine safety in light of the Sago and Alma disasters. Here's CBS on this and other developments.

West Virginia's aggressive leadership has prompted others to take action. Legislators in Illinois are moving to follow suit, reports WQAD-TV of Moline, Ill. Ohio is looking at doing something to strengthen state mine safety protections, too, says the Cincinnati Enquirer. And Pennsylvania, according to the Uniontown Herald-Standard.

Fantastic, some overnments are are taking action without waiting for a preventable death under their own jurisdiction -- an uncommon spectacle.

Meanwhile, after promising to do so since 2003, the federal Administration apparently has sent in proposed legislation to raise MSHA fines: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. MSHA also got its injunction MSHA requiring ICG to allow UMWA miners' representatives to accompany the mine investigators underground. (See CBS above.)

Also of note, the Courier-Journal is homing in on the subject of unpaid mine safety penalties, one issue that didn't get raised at last week's wide-ranging appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Civility Breaks Down on Sago Investigation?

I covered the Monday Senate Appropriation subcommittee hearing on mine safety for Ellen Smith, publisher of Mine Safety and Health News. The hearing was marked by general agreement that we need to do more for miner safety. ICG Coal CEO Ben Hatfield, among others, testified.

But just got the word that conflict has broken out over the UMWA representing miners at the non-union mine for the purposes of the investigation.

"MSHA filed for an injunction against a subsidiary of International Coal Group today after the company prevented representatives from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from entering the Sago Mine to assist in MSHA's investigation into the Jan. 2 accident there," Ellen reports. "MSHA recognizes UMWA representatives as a valid miner's representative."

Mine safety law provides for miners simply to designate a representative for federal mine safety purposes. The representative, who can participate in inspections and investigations on the miners' behalf, may be a fellow miner or another party.

Subscribers get occasional emails from Ellen with breaking news in addition to the biweekly newsletter. (Yes, this is a plug for my part-time employer.)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sick At Heart

I was going to write more this afternoon about technology...

...about how the PED (see "Lost In the Ground--Part 2") is just one of several devices that could help keep miners in touch and even track where they are so rescuers might narrow their search)...

...about seals that could do better in resisting explosions....

...about self-contained self-rescuers, and how it took 10 years after they were mandated to get them into the mines, and the shelf-life and maintenance issues with them that came up in the 1990's, and the market-based issues (few companies are interested in making them, given the limited profits)....

...about why it usually takes so long to develop new mine safety techology (some devices have been 'just around the corner' for years)....

A lot of this may be relevant to the appropriations hearing tomorrow.

But this morning's news (the two missing miners didn't make it)has left me sick at heart. I've just filed my routine stories and at this moment have nothing left with which to do more.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lost In the Ground -- Part 1

The words of the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen (1883-1918), have been haunting me for days. In memory of the miners at Sago and with hope yet remaining for the missing Aracoma miners, here is Owen's poem, "Miners":

There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.

I listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fawns.

My fire might show steam-phantoms simmer
From Time's old cauldron,
Before the birds made nests in summer,
Or men had children.

But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.

I saw white bones in the cinder-shard,
Bones without number.
For many hearts with coal are charred,
And few remember...

...Comforted years will sit soft-chaired,
In rooms of amber,
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our life's ember;

The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads
Lost in the ground.
* * *

(Above, the poem is shortened by one verse, indicated by the dots, and it still stands on its own. But for those who are intrerested, here are the omitted lines:

I thought of all that worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed:
Owen wrote "Miners" after a coal mine disaster that happened while he was between tours of duty in Europe. He was killed in battle a few days before the Armistice.)

Lost In the Ground -- Part 2

Sadly, prospects look no better this morning for two West Virginia coal miners missing since Thursday evening. WCHS-TV in Charleston reports that rescue teams haven't been able to control the mine fire or locate the men.

Meanwhile, the station also has an AP report that MSHA is getting ready to come out with a formal request for input on better emergency equipment for miners and mine rescue teams.

Even though regular walkie-talkies and cell phones won't work underground, technology exists today to communicate with individual miners underground, even in an emergency that knocks out mine telephones.

For instance Mine Site Technologies, an Australian firm, developed a comunication system known as PEDS, which has proved itself in the U.S., for instance in 1998 fire Willow Creek underground coal mine in Utah.

"The mine manager ordered an evacuation using a unique system which operates like a pager and is worn by most miners. This 'PED' system (Personal Emergency Device), allows for constant contact with the miners, even those working in remote areas. After the accident, a message was sent to the miners -- 'mine fire-evacuate'. The miners were safely evacuated in about 45 minutes."

(Two miners were later killed in a series of four explosions at the same mine on July 31, 2000. In that case, the message to evacuate was not sent until three explosions had already occurred. Even so, MSHA investigators found, "The use of the PED system was instrumental in alerting miners underground of the need to evacuate. Miners working in active and remote areas of the mine at the time of the explosion were notified through the use of the PED. These miners all safely exited the mine." )

The manufacturer explains:

"The combination of ultra low frequency (ULF) and a high power transmission system enables the PED signal to propagate through several hundreds of metres of rock strata. The signal can therefore be received at any location throughout the mine with an antenna on the surface only or a small underground antenna....

"For this reason, PED is an extremely effective emergency communication system. The ability to transmit actual messages is vitally important in allowing, not only a warning to be issued, but specific information regarding the situation to be sent (such as where a fire is, which evacuation route to take, etc)."

After the Jim Walter mine explosion in 2001, MSHA issued an emergency temporary standards intended to tighten procedures in such situations. But in making the standard final, the agency rejected suggestions that it also require the PED. The agency's reasoning:

"This system is currently used at a number of U.S. underground coal mines and has also been deployed at mines in other countries....MSHA believes that the PED system is generally effective and encourages its use. However, since technology is constantly changing, newer systems that may be as, or more, effective than the PED may be developed."

Another area to look at would be self-contained self-rescuers, the devices that underhround coal miners have at hand to provide an hour's oxygen. A third might be the adequacy of methiods used to seal off worked-out areas of the mine where methane can concentrate. And unfortunately, experience shows that even with the best will in the world, a requirement for new mine technology typically takes years to wend its way through the regulatory system. More on this tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in the accidents at Sago and now Aracoma, it's important to remember there are equally urgent questions: what specific sequence of events took place, and what happened earlier to set the stage? Did MSHA do its job, did the state do its job, did the mine operator comply with the existing law?

If so, then new technology may be the only possible fix. If not, it's a slightly different picture.

Some no doubt would be pleased if a new focus on technology were to take the public heat off the questions about enforcement and compliance.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bad News On The Doorstep

Two missing this morning in an underground coal mine fire in West Virginia. Apparently 19 miners walked out safely.

Latest and most complete information I find at the moment is on CBS News.

The men have been missing for over 20 hours as of mid-afternoon and, unlike the situation at Sago, unfortunately rescuers have confirmed an active fire:

"We're making an effort here to contain the fire. We've seen it from a couple of different places but we don't know the extent of it," [West Virginia mine safety chief Doug] Conaway said.

Underground coal mine fires can be very difficult to contain because the coal is combustible. Sometimes the only way to put out the fire is to seal the mine and pump in inert gases such as carbon dioxide. That's what happened at the Wilberg mine fire in Utah in December 1984, which claimed 19 lives.

But we should keep hoping for the best.

MSHA's database shows that the mine had three violations for accumulations of combustible materials in the month of the December. While there can be lag time for information getting onto the database, two of those are currently showing as uncorrected. MSHA also cited violations of standards on mine ventilation, electrical safety, firefighting equipment and others.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

MSHA Talking More -- But Will It Share Internal Findings?

MSHa has admitted it had ongoing concerns with the Sago Mine before the explosion. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a good summary.

One unanswered question: has MSHA pledged to release the report of its announced investigation into its own pre-disaster activities?

Ellen Smith of Legal Publication Services has commented:
In the agency’s last internal review involving Cody Mining, MSHA would only state that it found “deficiencies” in agency actions and the problems were corrected. MSHA would not go on record or give a written report to the public stating exactly what those deficiencies were, or what changes were made at the agency to correct those deficiencies. I would have more confidence in the agency if this information would be made available to the public.

Lies, D****d Lies, and Carefully Selected Statistics

With the support of number-crunching experts, Knight-Ridder News Service is standing by its recent finding that MSHA penalties are down.
[Inserted 1/20: The Herald-Leader published only a softened version of the KR Washington bureau's followup.]

"It's really wrong for them (MSHA) to say you're incorrect,'' said John Grego, professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "When you aggregate the whole thing, everything has gone down.'

The Department of Labor's "rebuttal" claimed that the reporters looked at the government data the wrong way. But when the reporters ran the government data the government's way, they still found that fines were down. For instance,
the average fine paid during the last five Clinton years was $20,832, while the Bush average is $8,746.
The government took the unusual step of posting its "rebuttal" on a federal holiday, Monday.

Even though Knight-Ridder's conclusions apparently have been vindicated, the government may count on the "rebuttal" raising enough doubt in people's minds to muddle the issue, since the average reader rarely has time to delve into statistical arguments. It's an old P.R. technique, sadly.

The original story is here.

The "rebuttal" is here.

One of the classic ways to "lie with statistics" is to run available data according to a number of possible parameters, take the best-looking charts and come up with with some ex post facto rationalization for why those parameters are especially meaningful.

By the way, no one should assume this has anything to do with the civil-service "numbers" people at MSHA. All the time I worked at MSHA myself (up to 2004) these professionals were competent, careful and as helpful to the public as they were permitted to be. Any manipulations came from higher up.

Also on the statistical front, a year ago, an op-ed in the Herald-Leader was commenting on MSHA's ways with death statistics.

Today, MSHA still hasn't counted the death of underground coal miner Forrest Riley in October 2004. The West Virginia medical examiner found that Mr. Riley had a heart attack, but at the same time, he was pinned in the cab of his machine by the end of a bent pipe -- which might have contributed to his death. The ME classified the death as accidental, but MSHA went the other way: "natural causes." This contrasted with the past, when the agency used to count deaths if the cause was uncertain.

Not counted in 2005 was the death last October of a worker removing trees to ready the ground for a new waste dump at a Virginia coal preparation plant (covered by federal mine safety law). This contrasts with other cases, where MSHA has taken responsibility for mine workers who cut trees to clear the ground for mining or for a haul road within mine property. There could be more uncounted deaths that deserve a second look.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Two Gagged MSHA at Sago?

Pity the career civil servants tasked with unraveling the miscommunication at Sago that led to 11 miners’ families mistakenly rejoicing in the belief that their loved ones were found alive. (See entry for January 11 below.)

MineSafetyWatch previously reported that the Department of Labor sent a political media specialist to the mine in lieu of career professionals with extensive communication experience in other mine emergencies.

New info: it wasn’t just one political aide. There were two.

In addition to Dirk Fillpot from the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., the Department also sent to the mine a political employee who works in the office of deputy secretary Steven Law. This individual, I was told, recently came to Labor from the Department of Defense, where her credentials included some time spent in Iraq. (It boggles the mind as to what value this background would have at Sago.)

It is not clear what these individuals actually did at the mine, if anything. But it is clear they paid no attention to MSHA’s tried and true public information procedures in mine emergencies.

They did not take charge to make sure that miners’ families and the media got accurate briefings.

They did not task themselves with rumor control. And when heartbreakingly incorrect information got out, they took no action to stop it.

MSHA safety managers onsite, including district manager Kevin Stricklin, coal mine safety administrator Ray McKinney and acting deputy assistant secretary Bob Friend, know how to handle public information in these emergencies. Even as the rejoicing went on, they must have known the joy was unfounded.

These circumstances suggest MSHA officials must have been under a gag order.

Where did that order come from? From the Labor Department politicals on site? Or from Washington?

And that's where the civil service investigators are in a tight spot.

They undoubtedly will find out the immediate sequence of events, but will they be empowered to look into the upper-level management decisions that set the stage?

Will the MSHA investigators be able to ask who, in Washington or in West Virginia, decided MSHA officials onsite would abdicate their normal communications responsibility?

Will the MSHA investigators find out who decided MSHA should forego its normal system of setting up planned briefings, which would have ensured information was carefully vetted before being relayed to families?

Will they get to interview Washington officials? Will they get to review e-mails and telephone records?

The questions answer themselves: these investigators will no doubt be directed to limit their horizons and not try to penetrate the decision chain -- where someone decided to circumvent procedures designed to prevent just this kind of fiasco.

That's why the investigation into the miscommunication at Sago needs to be made, not by MSHA, but by an independent investigator. Even the Inspector General of the Department of Labor may not have the necessary independence in a case like this.

That leaves Congress, the GAO, and/or the news media to unravel the full story.

The miners' families really deserve to know.

Footnote: Senate Appropriations Committee hearing (see below) is on again, rescheduled for Monday at 11.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sago Hearings On, Off Again

As investigators start interviews in the Sago Mine disaster, a Senate Appropriations committee hearing scheduled on Sago and mine safety in general for this Thursday was suddenly cancelled this morning, according to sources in MSHA and on the Hill.

I was told that the order for cancellation came from the majority side.

It's not known when separate public investigative hearings promised by the Department of Labor will begin. But the Governor's spokeswoman is estimating March.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Empty Promises on Safety Penalties

Are penalties under the federal mine safety law adequate to deter violators? Many have asked since the Sago tragedy.

So far no one in the media, that I have seen, has noted that the Department of Labor has been promising a penalty increase for the past 3 years -- and done nothing.

Most recently, on February 7, 2005, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao announced that the President's proposed budget for FY 2006 "also calls for substantially increasing the fine for egregious mine safety violations to $200,000 from $60,000."

But nothing has been done.

This, moreover, was not a novel announcement. The Department had made similar promises before.

From a speech of then-Assistant Secretary of MSHA Dave D. Lauriski said in February 2003:

"The Department of Labor intends to introduce legislation to allow for the assessment by MSHA of penalties up to $220,000 to address 'egregious violations.' This provision would be applied on a case-by-case basis and would be reserved for those violations that meet certain criteria demonstrated by those who have disrespect for the law. It would not affect penalties for the vast majority of violations, but would give the agency another tool to deal with the few cases in which mine operators expose miners to serious hazards without regard for the law."

As it happens, I attended the House hearing on MSHA's appropriations for FY 2006. Acting Asssitant Secretary for MSHA David Dye said nothing at in the hearing about raising penalties, and when I tried to ask about it, walked away.

The top penalty for any single violation is $60,000. The minimum penalty is $60. Most fall somewhere in between, but MSHA has cited more infractions lately as "non-significant and -substantial violations," eligible for the minimum.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rescue Teams and Rescue Managers

MSHA has done well in putting on its website answers to frequently asked questions about the Sago rescue effort. It would have been better if the agency had been more proactive earlier, but this is a move in the right direction.

The agency says some 13 specially trained rescue teams responded to the explosion. Mine rescue people have always stepped forward to help in this way. They are to be commended for their courage, their commitment to others and the many hours that every team member spends practicing to be ready for such a situation. Their dedication reflects a special quality shared by men and women who work in the nation's mines. Anyone who gets to know miners quickly discovers this. They deserve our respect and admiration.

Questions about the rescue process will take time to sort out. One question is how quickly officials got off the mark. MSHA says that the explosion happened at about 6:30 a.m. The company reportedly first put in a call to MSHA about 8:10 a.m. and made contact at 8:30. In other words, by MSHA's account, 100 minutes passed before the company tried to contact MSHA.

MSHA's rules state:

30 CFR § 50.10
Immediate notification.

If an accident occurs, an operator shall immediately contact the MSHA District Office having jurisdiction over its mine....

The investigators will be looking at all of this, certainly.

When I was with MSHA, I observed the response of both MSHA and company officials to extremely serious mine accidents. I also participated in emergency training exercises for managers.

It was clear that in a bad emergency (any emergency, not just in mining), human reactions can be slowed by shock, a sense that "this can't be happening," and the hope that it won't be as serious as feared. In some historic cases, critical moments went by in evaluating a situation when it would have been better to evacuate at once.

In addition, mine rescue teams do their work underground only under orders from the surface.

That's why it's so critical to plan and practice at the management level as well as the rescue-team level.

MSHA used to give training sessions on emergency response for managers -- its own and company officials -- at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy. The course was known as "Mine Emergency Responsiveness Development." Managers would work through an imaginary emergency rescue scenario in real time. (Including how to meet the needs of families and deal with the media.) I don't happen to see this course on the Academy's class schedule for the coming year, though.

Another group of people who I think need training and drills are those who may have to make the first decisions or give important help at the surface. Sometimes they have to react in the absence of top managers, who may not always be present on site. They can include specialists who monitor electronic warning systems, office workers, and security guards.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lightning Striking at Sago?

MSHA had a press conference yesterday in the form of a telephone conference call. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has one of the stories.

Officials said they were adding two members to the investigation specifically to look into the communication issues during the emergency: Kevin Burns, who directs the agency's small mines program, and Bob Phillips, a veteran coal mine safety specialist at HQ.

The T-R discusses the "lightning" hypothesis, which some of us heard -- as I recall -- even before the miners were found. I believe the investigators should be able to pin down the exact time of the explosion within seconds, because a chart is kept, tracking the operation of a mine's ventilation fan. Explosions generally cause a fan stoppage. Or if not in this case, there would most likely be a marked perturbation on the chart.

I believe lightning-caused explosions to be rare, and don't in 25 years recall one that caused an injury. But it's hardly possible to rule anything out at this stage. One principle to remember is that methane is normally explosive only when mixed with air in concentrations of 5 to 15 percent. Higher and lower concentrations normally won't explode, but sound mining practices of course allow a large margin of safety.

By the way, MSHA invited Mine Safety and Health News and the Charleston Gazette to yesterday's telephone news conference, after leaving them out of the first one. So that's one wrong corrected. (Full disclosure, I stood in for Ellen Smith, who was tied up on another call at the time.)

Also, I applaud MSHA for a partial reversal of its trend towards withholding information in that the agency has posted the mine's past "unwarrantable failure" violations on its website in an annex to the FOIA reading room. That's exactly the kind of thing the FOIA reading room is intended for. And I hope they'll add to the material quickly. Reporters will be seeking access to the mine's approved ventilation and roof control plans, additional violations, inspection and investigation reports and inspector notes from past inspections. Reporters also may want the "k" order MSHA routinely issues in an emergency requiring the mine operator to clear all actions with MSHA; the fan chart; and other hard data.

It is highly significant that the MSHA postings include violations that are currently under contest. In the past two years, MSHA took the position that many enforcement documents would not be released until all litigation and even all potential for litigation was past. Inspector notes were a big issue in this regard for industry people as well as others. As far as this goes, MSHA has done the right thing. We'll see what comes next.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Charleston Gazette Follows The Money. Plus....

The Charleston Gazette shows how New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr. came to control the company that owns the Sago Mine, and how the change in the mine's parent company last fall didn't make all that much difference to safety on (and under) the ground. A great follow-the-money piece.

Incidentally, Brent Bozell's right-wing site Newsbusters fingered Gazette environmental reporter Ken Ward for a "long-time activist" but has backed down.

Ward and Mine Safety and Health News editor Ellen Smith both found themselves un-invited to an early conference call the Mine Safety and Health Administration held with reporters on Sago, even though (or because?) both are long-time bird-doggers on mine safety issues.

Coincidentally or not, Department of Labor assistant secretary for public affirs Lisa Kruska (in charge of media for MSHA mong other things) apparently used to work with another Bozell outfit, the Parents' Television Council. (See contact line on linked news release.)

Who is this Brent Bozell, and why does he matter?

Connecting too many dots here....? Or not enough?

An -- Appropriately -- Huge Investigation

The last two days, I've been filing stories for my day job.

Very big news about the Sago investigation. From CBS News:

Federal and state mine safety officials said they would hold joint public hearings on the accident. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said federal mine safety officials would be called to testify before a Senate subcommittee that would hold hearings into the disaster beginning Jan. 19.

"It's time for the decisions affecting America's miners to be made with their best interests at heart," Byrd said in a statement. "That should be the legacy of the Sago miners."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also called for hearings into the specific issue of coal mine safety. He said Congress had not held a comprehensive oversight hearing of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration since 2001.

Also Monday, Manchin named J. Davitt McAteer, who oversaw the federal MSHA during the Clinton administration, to serve as his consultant, oversee the work of state and federal investigators, and issue a report on the disaster by July 1.

The attention to mine safety issues certainly is deserved. And the combination is unprecedented.

MSHA and its predecessors have held public hearings as part of investigations in some cases, yes. But in such a high-profile coal mine disaster, not since the Scotia Mine twin explosions in 1976 that killed 26. The Scotia investigation became mired in legal battles and the report was held back from release by a court order for 20 years. It is to be hoped that the same thing will not happen here.

Congressional hearings have been held into mine disasters, but almost always waited until a fact-finding investigation was complete.

And bringing in an outside consultant to do an accident investigation also is a fresh approach.

It healthy that no single organization will control this probe. Suspicion over government secrecy and the government's role in the Sago information fiasco could have badly hampered a classic investigation.

At the same time, I hope investigators will find a way to ensure protection for miner witnesses who may feel intimidated in a very public hearing forum. Sometimes miners worry -- rightly -- about being fired, laid off, blacklisted, shunned in the community, etc., for telling the truth to investigators. There are legal remedies for much of this, but they can be painfully slow.

I also hope that investigators will put all raw data -- mine plans, maps, test results, etc. -- on the public record, reversing the trend towards secrecy in these investigations over recent years.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Newsday on the Mine Disaster Communication Mess

Newsday reporter Dan Wagner talked to several former feds about what happened.

He quotes me. I'm not sure if MSHA revised its emergency response procedures in the last two to three years. But they certainly didn't follow tried and true communication practices developed over many such incidents.

The MSHA emergency response manual that we used to follow isn't on the web that I can see. But the agency's accident investigation manual, which is posted (huge PDF file), indicates they could clearly have done more than they did. See Chapter I, section IV, "Authority to Issue Statement." (This is p. 20 of the PDF file.)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Information Fiasco Only Gets More Heartbreaking

The Charleston Daily Mail reports:

Dennis O'Dell, safety chief of the United Mine Workers of America, said word quickly spread among work crews and everyone else on the scene that the men were dead. He said some people knew the truth as soon as 15 minutes after others at the church began celebrating the miners' survival....

O'Dell said he assumed the information would be passed on to the families shortly after midnight.

He said he first found out false rumors were still circulating about 1 a.m. when he called his wife in Virginia to tell her the miners were dead.
She told him national news sources still were reporting all of them were alive.

O'Dell said he immediately contacted on-site officials with both the state of West Virginia and with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to see who should correct the mistake.

He again was told the matter was being left up to the coal company.

O'Dell called the experience "sickening." Indeed.

The government is reponsible to the people. Directly to the people. Not just to coal companies and other employers.

If this is what happened, we are talking about a cop-out, moral cowardice, and a repudiation of the whole principle of public service.

Miners and their families are more than just employees of a particular company. They are fellow Americans and fellow human beings. They work hard. They pay their taxes. The government is supposed to be of, by and for them and all of us. When the chips are down, government is supposed to be their helper and advocate.

O'Dell -- an outsider at a mine that was non-union -- said he struggled with whether to intervene personally. Who was I to the family members? They've been communicating with the company all night, and if I went down there as someone they'd never seen before and told them this, what would they think? What would they do?

I contemplate this scenario, and another recent fiasco comes to mind -- Hurricane Katrina. It brings back the confident statments we heard that rescue efforts were going well, even as cameras brought us contrary evidence.

And I want readers to know: this is not the way things used to be at MSHA's public information office. This is a new policy, a new way of doing things. And MSHA is still full of excellent professionals, inspectors, investigators, information people...Most MSHA people have worked in mines, have families in the mines, and must be broken-hearted both over the tragedy and what happened to the families. The decision to handle things this way, in my view, can only have come from the top.

By the way, I first saw the Daily Mail story on Jordan Barab's very thorough job safety and health blog, Confined Space. Worth a visit.

Comment Or Contact

A surprising number of people have visited this little blog since the Sago tragedy. Reporters, among others, are talking about their frustration in getting information from official sources, and they are looking for insights wherever they can.

Because of the increased interest, I've set up a mailbox for the site. If you have a comment, contribution, question or correction, you can e-mail:

minesafetywatch at

This is very much a part-time activity. Usually, I can only update the site once a day. But I'll be glad to read any mail and post selections.


From Ellen Smith, Editor of Mine Safety and Health News

Ellen has been very visible (and audible) in the media this week as frustrated journalists seek authoritative information and the government has been slow to respond. She sends this comment on Sago:

I hope that you bloggers saw Wilbur Ross on T.V. last night (ABC) where he stated that he knew of the problems at the mine, including the unintentional roof falls, and he did not think it was so bad.

After looking at the size of these roof falls... well,let's just say that I’m glad these miners had hard hats.

-- Ellen (AKA Alice)

>On Dec. 5 there was an unintentional roof fall on the 2 left mains section in the #8 entry 2 block inby spad station 3997. the fall measured 18' w x 7' high x 19'long.

>On Nov. 27 there was an unintentional roof fall on the on the north east mains, #4 entry (return) @ 39 block, spad station #3781. The fall measured 18' high, 20' wide, 70' long.

>On Nov. 25 there was an unintentional roof fall on the northeast mains, #6 entry(track) 1 break inby spad #3919. This fall measured 40' long x 20' wide x 7' high.

>On Nov. 7, a miner was injured when a coal rib fell striking his lower right back.

>On Oct. 26 there was an unintentional roof fall in the northeast mains 1 break inby spad station # 3762, #7 entry. The fall measured 5' h x 30' long x 18' wide.

I missed that T.V. show. Wry comment, indeed...hard hards obviously being of little help in a roof fall as massive as some of these.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Not So Safe As All That

Just saw the long article on the Sago Mine's history in U.S.A. Today.

The paper noted that the coal industry's injury rate isn't way above other industries. Yes, but. It's the rate of fatal injuries, not total injuries, that has always stood out.

Other industries may have lots of carpal tunnel syndrome, but there are darn few where your workplace is likely to collapse or explode on you if you let your attention waver.

Now, guess what. It's hard to find comparative rate data for on-the-job deaths in different industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't compare industries by fatality rate on its website. It gives you only the raw numbers of deaths, no adjustment for the different numbers of employees in different lines of work.

OK, the following is rough, and by all means check my math for yourself, but according to my calculation, a coal miner was more than 6 times as likely to get killed on the job as the average U.S. worker in 2004.

(Had to use 2004 data because last year's aren't all available yet.)

Total employment was roughly 139 million according to BLS, in June, which should be representative of the year. Total on-the-job fatalities were 5,703. That's about 1 death in 24,373 workers.

MSHA puts coal mine employment in 2004 at 76,488 direct employees of mine operators, plus 32,246 employees of "independent contractors." {The different treatment of these contractor employees is another, long story.) That's a total of 108,734 coal miners covered by MSHA. Twenty-eight of them were killed. (Officially. That's another story.) That's about 1 coal miner killed in 3,883.

* * *

Clearly, MSHA was concerned about the mine. That has often been the case before a tragedy. Questions that will need looking into include:

--Were the MSHA-approved mine plans appropriate? Equally important, was the mine operator complying with them?

--Why were so many of the violations written up as non S&S( nonserious)?

--Did MSHA consider using the law's Pattern of Violations provision to deal with the chronic hazards? This little known provision of the law allows the agency to issue a closure order if there is such a pattern.* To the best of my knowledge it has never been used.

--Does the agency need more tools to deal with mines that repeatedly fail to comply? For instance, the power to close the whole mine The power to require more effective safety plans, not just bare adequacy?

* * *

*Correction, sorry, I briefly posted a statement that finding a pattern of violations would allow the agency close the whole mine. That was wrong. They can only close whatever part is deemed to be affected. See Section 104(e)(1).

Will Mine Investigation Gain Public's Trust?

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has announced its investigation into the Sago Mine tragedy with its usual press release.

The investigation is likely to last several months.

In the interim, it is likely MSHA will refuse to talk about the accident or release any further documents or data about the mine, on the grounds that the investigation is pending.

It didn't always happen that way. The agency used to release discrete facutal information as the investigation progressed. Matters of public record included non-confidential interview transcripts, laboratory results, and MSHA-approved mine plans and inspector notes from before the accident.

MSHA now routinely holds such records back at least until it issues its final report, and has even claimed the right to withhold such records until all possibility of litigation has been exhausted -- possibly many years later.

The excuse is interference with law enforcement. But in my experience, interference is rarely a realistic concern. The real issues usually are spin control, shortage of resources to cope with requests, and sheer dislike of the Freedom of Information Act.

Note: MSHA still will release investigation records early, but only when it chooses -- such as selected photos during the 2002 Quecreek investigation.

I am talking here about factual records, not conclusions or opinions. The agency even used to release non-confidential interview transcripts, once all interviews were complete. The only delay was to make sure that the information could not influence witnesses' memories. (Pledges of confidentiality, of course, always were honored, but rarely requested by interviewees.)

For instance, MSHA followed this system after the 1984 Wilberg mine fire in Utah, the 1989 Pyro mine explosion in Kentucky, the 1992 Southmountain mine explosion in Virginia, and in the early phases of its investigation into the 2000 Martin County coal mine impoundment failure in Kentucky.

Now, however, concerned individuals outside MSHA likely will have no chance to examine raw evidence and reach their own conclusions until MSHA has put out its own conclusions -- and maybe not even then.

A return to the former practice would be right, healthy and help keep the government up to the mark through greater public scrutiny.

It would also help to restore the trust of a public increasingly unhappy with government secrecy and especially upset about mismanagement of the bad news at the Sago Mine.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

No Excuse for WV Families' Agony

Bad news this morning. I went to bed last night finally at 1 a.m. I had first doubted the word that 12 of 13 missing miners were safe, but not for long. When an hour passed and no correction, I was puzzled about the lack of official confirmation, but no longer doubting. If the rumor was not true, or even unconfirmed, some official who knew would surely have said so.


My heart just breaks when I think of the lost miners' families, who apparently were left for three long hours in the false security that their loved ones were alive andsoon to join them -- only to have that hope dashed early this morning when they learned that only one miner survived.

These families are angry and have a right to be angry.

And the federal government bears some of the blame.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration were in the emergency command center at the mine, as they always are in mine emergencies of this kind. They were there because MSHA has to approve every single action taken in an emergency with miners missing. They must have known the truth. And they should have acted to stop the rumor and bring the truth to the families.

It was a very different story at another tragic mine explosion back in December 1992. Families of eight missing miners huddled in tents and school buses on a snowy hillside near Norton, Va., for almost a week before rescue teams could overcome the obstacles and find their loved ones, only to end their hope.

But in that case, at least there was full and honest sharing of information.

I was one of the MSHA people on site that bitter week. As an agency spokeserson, I shuttled back and forth between the families, the media and the officials in the command center, keeping abreast of facts, rumors and feelings.

Through the snow and darkness and bitter winds, every two to three hours during that ordeal, knowledgable people with MSHA, the state mine agency and -- when possible --the company would make their way down the dirt road from the portal of the Southmountain mine to the waiting families and make sure they knew the truth.

Most of the time, we brought safety specialists to these briefings -- specialists who were part of the rescue effort and could explain the details. When we had updated the families and answered all their questions to the best of our knowledge, we would go outside and brief the news media, also assembled there. We gave the media the same information we had told the family members.

We knew that when accurate information is lacking, rumors will run wild. So rumor control was part of what we had to do.

We also knew that communicating critical news by walkie-talkies or cell phones can lead to unintended interceptions and mistakes. The rescuers in the Virginia emergency understood this and discussed new findings only by land-line or in person until the families knew. In this way, we made sure that the miners' families always got announcements first -- and accurately.

At that time MSHA's own emergency response manual and media guidelines told agency managers: in an emergency, your responsibilities include waiting families, and the media that will bring the news to the wider commmunity.

Not that MSHA usurped the mining company's role. If the company stepped up and took the lead responsibly with families and media, MSHA would not intefere, but would supply information on its own part in the rescue effort.

But if a company could not or would not take the informative role, it was MSHA's job to step in.

In the 1992 explosion, a small mining company found itself overwhelmed and could not organize briefings. So MSHA did.

And in Upshur County, as soon as it was known that the miners' families were reacting to a false rumor, someone should have stepped in at once to give them the truth. If no one else was willing, MSHA should have done it.

Public information on mine safety is part of the the federal mine agency's job -- a part it has less and less enthusiastically embraced under the Bush administration.

For instance, MSHA has cut back on what it gives out under the Freedom of Information Act, dumbed-down news releases, and pushed career professionals out of public roles.

At the time of the 2002 Quecreek mine rescue, MSHA's tried and true system for handling information in mine emergencies was still largely in place. While we were only one of many responding agencies, we still made sure that throughout, accurate news went first to families, then the media.

After that, though, the assault on public information accelerated.

MSHA still has a few public information professionals with experience in mine emergencies. But they were left on the sidelines this time.

I have heard that the Labor Department sent a political press aide with no mine emergency experience to the site. If that is what happened, it would typify a politically-obsessed administration that makes a habit of spurning professional expertise.

But it is no excuse for the cruelty caused by the government's failure to take responsibility and tell those waiting families the truth.

It also has been MSHA's practice in recent years to take a lower profile in emergencies and other bad news, while pushing news of success. If people aren't even aware you have responsibilities, they don't ask awkward questions when things go wrong.

I hope somebody will ask some questions this time.

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