Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Still Digesting the Internal Reviews

I'm catching up on coverage of the MSHA internal reviews. Didn't want to read other stories until I got oriented to the reports independently. (By the way: The fact that I quote one story and not another on a national matter usually has a lot to do with time and chance and is not to be taken as a judgement on whose story was first, better or more important. I have about 1/2 hour in a day to do this blog and can't aim to be the Wikipedia let alone Britannica of mine safety. :) )Further snippets, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

...Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, voiced skepticism about the new [accountability] office [announced by MSHA in the wake of the reviews], given the acknowledged inadequacy of MSHA's existing accountability program.

"Now they're going to establish a new accountability office? It's still going to be their people reporting on their people."

What's needed, said Mr. Smith, is an external review of mining accidents and MSHA enforcement. "When you look at these reports, they found deficiencies in three different MSHA districts. To us, that indicates a pattern."

The voluminous reports reprise descriptions of problems identified previously -- uneven enforcement, inadequate standards for and poor construction of mine seals and insufficient training in the use of emergency oxygen devices.

Kevin Stricklin, who is now head of MSHA's coal program, was district manager for northern West Virginia at the time of the Sago explosion. Mr. Stricklin and his staff of inspectors had stepped up enforcement at Sago but "their evaluations of gravity and negligence were adversely influenced" by conference officers who would reduce the severity of the violations, the review found...

Tony Oppegard, a mine safety expert and attorney representing four of the Darby widows, said he found the Darby report hypocritical. "They issue a 200-page report where they hammer their own inspectors and supervisors, then conclude they didn't contribute to the accident. It's illogical."

"West Virgina's Legal Journal," the West Virginia Record, had this on a recent safety discrimination case:
MADISON - A Boone County man was awarded more than $2 million in punitive and compensatory damages after he filed a wrongful termination suit against Independence Coal Company, a Massey Coal subsidiary.

Rocky Allen Burns filed the case May 11, 2006, claiming his firing was a retaliatory move after he reported safety problems to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Burns worked as an in-house safety inspector with the Independence Coal mine.

A jury awarded Burns with $98,862 in back pay; $800,692 in back pay and $100,000 in aggravation, inconvenience, humiliation, embarrassment and loss of dignity. He was also awarded $1 million in punitive damages, making the total awarded damages a little more than $2 million.

The State Journal recently caried a lengthy piece about a Logan County, W.Va., mine and equipment-company owner who is pursuing approval on an airlock door intended to turh a portion of the mine into a refuge chamber -- basically sounds like "barricading" taken to a much more systematic level.

In a welcome development, China is reporting a drop in coal mine acidents, says Xinhua News Service:
Updated: 2007-07-03 01:39

The number of coal mine accidents in China in the first half of 2007 totaled 1,066, down 242 from the same period last year, based on figures released by the country's safety watchdog on Monday.

The death toll was 1,792, 14.3 percent lower than the same period last year, according to officials with the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety (SACMS) and the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS).

The death ratio in producing one million tons of coal was 1.633, down 19.9 percent compared with the same period last year, said SACMS Director Zhao Tiechui...

Meanwhile coal continues to drive China's energy bus, the same news service reported:
Updated: 2007-07-03 09:17
China's primary energy consumption rose by 8.4 percent in 2006, six percent more than the growth rate of global consumption, according to a report released by BP on Monday.

The world consumption rose 2.4 percent last year, slowing from a rise of 3.2 percent in 2005, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy...

The world's coal consumption rose 4.5 percent in 2006, while China saw a rise of 8.7 percent in coal consumption in the same year to account for more than 70 percent of the global coal consumption increase.

China's coal consumption was 1.19 billion tons of oil equivalent in 2006, and remained self-sufficient in coal consumption with coal output reaching 1.21 billion tons of oil equivalent...

According to Xinhua's calculation based on BP statistics, China's coal consumption accounted for 70 percent of its total primary energy consumption, with oil consumption accounting for 20.6 percent, natural gas use 2.9 percent, hydropower use 5.6 percent and nuclear power use 0.7 percent.

Finally, a Fort Meade, Fla., earthmoving contractor that does some of its work at mines has advertised on Monster.com that it's looking for a safety supervisor. The advertised salary is $40,000 to $50,000. Needs to know MSHA regs, MSHA certification a "plus."

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Watchdog Has Now Reported on Itself

MSHA came out with three separate internal review reports last Thursday, evaluating the agency's own performance prior to the three major disasters of 2006: the Sago explosion, the Aracoma Alma fire, and the Kentucky Darby explosion. It looks as though the federal mine safety agency had plenty to say about itself that was not complimentary. I'm still reading.

Public relations sidenote: By putting out bad news on three fronts all in the same day, the agency minimized publicity "hits" that would remind the public of these events. Instead of three internal-review stories on three days, the public gets one story on one day. Similarly, MSHA issued reports (including violations) and penalties on the same day for each of the accidents. Before Sago, the issue of the accident report/violations in any mine accident routinely preceded the announcement of penalties by weeks or even months. Now -- for high-profile cases -- MSHA is releasing the report, citations and penalties together. For the three 2006 disasters, that meant three news stories instead of six.

Altogether, therefore, instead of nine stories on the upshot of that terrible 2006 season (which would have been one report/violations story, one penalty story, and one internal review story on each of three accidents), the public has seen a total of four stories. Fewer reminders of bad news.
One summary of the reports was in the Charleston Gazette:

By Ken Ward, Jr.
Staff writer

Federal mine safety officials overlooked obvious violations, declined to take serious enforcement actions, and wrote regulations that were far too weak at three mines where 19 miners died last year, according to three new internal Labor Department reviews.

Staff cuts, agency reorganizations and an emphasis on “compliance assistance” also eroded the ability of the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration to protect miners, according to the long-awaited reviews released Thursday.

Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, pronounced the findings “deeply disturbing.” Stickler announced plans for a new MSHA Office of Accountability to correct the problems.

“These three reviews show an unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight that will not be tolerated,” Stickler said in a memo to all MSHA employees, released to the public along with the reports.

...But the most serious problems cited in the three MSHA reports were at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, where 2 workers died in a Jan. 19, 2006, fire.
“The team members are unaware of a similar situation in which health and safety hazards were so prevalent, and conditions in the mine so deplorable, yet MSHA personnel at so many levels failed to follow established agency policies and procedures which are designed to provide that coal mines will be fully and effectively inspected,” the Aracoma interview review concluded....

The blame issue remains potentially controversial.

MSHA inspector Minness Justice said Thursday that he and Edward Paynter, the last two agency inspectors at Aracoma, have been notified that they will be fired in 30 days.

“They’re blaming the two inspectors,” Justice said. “MSHA management was a huge part of the problem.”

Since the fire, several key MSHA supervisors with roles over Aracoma have retired. They include former District Manager Jesse Cole and supervising inspectors Bill Gillenwater and Jake Blevins.

The MSHA internal review of Aracoma backs up some complaints from Justice that staffing cuts, reorganizations and philosophical changes at agency headquarters undercut the protection of miners....

A few comments reported in the Beckley Register-Herald:

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald reporter

...“For too long, MSHA has served as compliance assistants for mine operators while letting their core responsibilities of safety oversight wither,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said of the report...

“I take no personal pleasure in pointing out that if the agency had been doing its job properly, most of the miners we lost this year and last would still be with us.”...

Byrd interpreted MSHA’s internal review of the Alma accident as “a straightforward and unflinching look at how mistakes, omissions and indifference compound into disaster.”

While the Sago report zeroes in on some specific failures, Byrd said it wasn’t “quite the definitive report I had hoped for.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., said the MSHA findings gave the federal agency a chance to be honest and up-front about its shortcomings.

“While I appreciate that this type of analysis by the agency must have been difficult, no matter how hard MSHA tries to spin it, clearly the violations that their inspectors failed to find — or ignored — at Alma contributed to the disaster,” the senator said. “And, at the very least, MSHA should have done more to end the slow walk of the Sago Mine operators toward compliance.”

More funding is on the way, and the Bluefield Daily Telegraph editorializes:

Key funding secured this week by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., is an important step in helping to improve safety conditions for miners not only in the Mountain State, but also across the nation.

Byrd, also chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said millions of dollars will now be directed to the Mine Safety Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to help implement key provisions in the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act and the Coal Act...

The welcomed federal funding secured this week is $13 million above President Bush’s budget request to help improve MSHA’s ability to perform all mandatory inspections. ...

Byrd also secured $3 million over the president’s budget request for the National Mine and Safety Academy in Beckley to continue infrastructure improvements; $2.2 million for the United Mine Workers of America to provide classroom and simulated rescue training for mine rescue teams at its Beckley career center; and $6 million for black lung clinics across the Mountain State.

We applaud the increase in federal funding for these vital mine safety improvements. However, the fight to protect our miners and their families must continue. We can’t stop until we know that all miners in the Mountain State, and across the nation, are afforded the best protections and safety enforcement possible.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports some coal industry pushback against large companies, including energy producers, that last year signed on to a cooperative effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.

By Steve James

...Robert Murray, chairman and chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., warned the coal industry could collapse with the loss of 3 million to 4 million jobs if carbon dioxide emission controls are introduced.

He has even put his money where his mouth is by refusing to do business with Caterpillar Inc... a manufacturer of the very mining equipment his company needs.
"There are a number of companies that are promoting constraints on coal use to achieve greater profits and/or competitive advantages," Murray said at the coal conference.

He branded more than 20 major corporations that make up the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) "un-American" for allying with environmental groups he calls "enemies of coal."

USCAP, which backs moves to cap carbon dioxide emissions, includes Caterpillar, General Electric Co., Dupont Co., AIG, General Motors, Dow Chemical Co., Johnson & Johnson, Pepsico Inc., Alcoa Inc., and ConocoPhillips.

"I've been trying to get their attention," Murray said. "(CEO) Jeffrey Immelt of GE and I debated this for about 45 minutes, but I didn't convince him of anything because he sells windmills ... he wants to see the global warming come along."

There was no immediate comment from GE. Caterpillar said that while it would not debate the science, it believes it is incumbent on industry to reduce emissions.

"Knowing this debate is going to get under way in earnest we're here to protect the interests of our customers, particularly coal," the truck and tractor maker said in a statement. "We can be more effective protecting those interests by supporting a single national mandate ..."

...Murray, whose private company produces about 30 million tons of coal per year, has formed the Coal-based Stakeholders Chief Executive Officers Group, comprising CEOs of railroads, some coal companies and utilities. It opposes so-called "cap and trade" regulations, arguing that caps on emissions will devastate the U.S. coal industry which fuels about 50 percent of the country's electricity generation...