Saturday, November 17, 2007

Crandall Canyon and Political Will

Any major mine disaster can be counted upon to dominate MSHA's agenda for at least one full year afterwards. The Crandall Canyon disaster this August continues to make national headlines.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee has subpoenaed mine owner Robert Murray, CNN reported:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Senate subcommittee probing this summer's deadly Utah mine disaster has subpoenaed the mine's co-owner, ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter said Friday.

The subpoena for Bob Murray -- CEO and president of Murray Energy Group -- directs him to appear before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services on December 4....

"We're going to get to the bottom of what went on there," said Specter, R-Pennsylvania.

"Murray is an indispensable witness, and, candidly, he really flouted the authority and responsibility of the United States Senate to have his testimony to find out what happened so we could do our utmost to prevent future occurrences."...

Murray was invited to testify in an earlier Appropriations subcommitee hearing but did not appear.

The Department of Labor released an Inspector General report of MSHA conducted at the behest of Rep. George Miller. The Washington Post:

Report Faults Mine Safety
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007; Page A08

U.S. mine safety regulators failed to conduct inspections required by federal law at more than one in seven of the country's 731 underground coal mines last year, a year in which the number of worker deaths in mining accidents more than doubled to 47, a government report says.

Budget constraints and a lack of management emphasis on worker safety by the Bush administration are responsible for the lapses, the Labor Department inspector general said in a report released yesterday....

The findings are likely to fuel a partisan battle heading into next year's presidential elections, as Democrats in Congress, mine worker unions and safety advocates clash with the administration and mining companies over whether the Labor Department has struck a proper balance between investigating unions and worker safety, and in seeking voluntary compliance from mine companies with regulations instead of assessing fines....

The report also found that MSHA officials misdated records of the most recent inspections at the Crandall Canyon mine. In one case, an MSHA field supervisor dated his approval of the mine's roof-control plan in February, four months before the May 30 start of the inspection....

...David James, a spokesman for Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, said the department disagrees with several elements of the report. Department officials look forward, he said, to the conclusions of an independent panel, appointed by Chao to investigate MSHA's performance during the Crandall Canyon disaster.

...Richard E. Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said 70 percent of the uncompleted inspections were at mines that were "non-producing, inactive, intermittent or abandoned" during the inspection period.

..."Valuable and limited enforcement time by our inspectors should be placed primarily on identifying and abating hazards as a result of inspections rather than documentation and paperwork," he wrote.

...The inspector general's office found that the MSHA missed 147 inspections at 107 mines employing a total of 7,500 workers.

The report found that inspection resources were strained by a cut in inspectors and an increase in mining operations and accidents that had to be investigated. There was also less money for non-personnel costs and additional agency requirements, the report says.

The number of MSHA coal mine inspectors fell 18 percent between 2002 and 2006, from 605 to 496, while mining activity increased 9 percent nationally. Funding for the coal safety and health agency increased 1 percent over that period, to $117 million, but that was not enough to offset cost-of-living salary increases for its personnel, which grew $6.1 million.

The MSHA has hired 270 inspector trainees since July 2006, launched a plan last month to reassign inspectors and boost overtime, and asked for money to add 244 workers next year.

Auditors also said that MSHA officials misstated inspection statistics in reports and on the agency's Web site, partly because "management did not place adequate emphasis on ensuring the inspections were completed and the reported completion rate was accurate."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

And the Charleston Gazette brought out another aspect:

November 16, 2007
MSHA count called ‘inconsistent’
Labor report questions mine fatality procedures

By Ken Ward Jr.
Staff writer

The U.S. Department of Labor’s procedures for counting mining deaths are inconsistent and don’t follow the agency’s own written rules, according to a new audit report from the department’s Inspector General.

Investigators did not find instances where the departments’ Mine Safety and Health Administration decisions were “clearly contradicted by available evidence.”
But the report identified instances of non-compliance with MSHA policies and “control and procedural weaknesses that increased the risk that such errors could occur.”

“We found that investigators and decision makers lacked independence, investigative procedures were inconsistent, and investigative documentation was sometimes lacking,” the IG said in a report issued Thursday....

Starting in late 2003, the United Mine Workers began complaining that MSHA was not counting certain types of accidents that had previously been deemed chargeable. They cited examples: truck drivers, security guards, and loggers who cut trees in advance of strip mining.

In February, after looking into the matter, MSHA chief Richard Stickler issued a new policy that critics say tightens the definition of a mining death.

But the issue has remained controversial. Just last week MSHA agreed to designate as chargeable the November 2005 death of a coal trucker at Mettiki Coal in Grant County. MSHA did so after a Charleston Gazette article detailing the circumstances of trucker Chad Cook’s death....

The IG recommended that MSHA, among other things, add an independent member to its fatality review committee, implement standard investigative protocols for all death investigations, and create a quality assurance program for documentation of investigative information.

An interview with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) made ink as far away as Mineral Wells, Texas. Rockefeller doesn't think new laws are needed for better mine safety enforcement. His take is that it's more a matter of management, budget and political priorities.

November 15
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Enacting a new federal law is no solution to safety concerns in the coal industry since there is ample legislation in force to get the task done — if the Mine Safety and Health Administration would only do it, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller says...

In response to last year’s tragedy that left a dozen underground coal miners dead at the Sago Mine, Congress passed the MINER Act, calling for increased safety measures, but since then, the United Mine Workers of America has complained that MSHA has been lax in enforcing it.

Of chief concern with the UMWA has been the spotty record of conducting mandatory inspections.

“I don’t need a federal law to tell me to do my best every day,” Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said. “I just don’t.”

With inspections held in limbo at some installations, are some coal companies exploiting the situation?

Bristling at the question, Rockefeller said, “That’s a provocative question.”

“I don’t think that coal in this state has always taken every single advantage they could have, every possible thing they could do on their own,” he said....

Rockefeller said he has had “a very low regard” for MSHA under the Bush administration, and criticized director Richard Strickler as “an anathema to me.”

“I’m not sure that what you do is try to pass another bill, add some more things on,” the senator said. “First of all, it’s going to get vetoed.”

Secondly, mine issues appeal to a much narrower audience since coal is produced in only 16 states, unlike the State Children’s Health Insurance Program which is in force across the entire country, he noted.

“MSHA is meant to do rules and regulations and meant to have inspections all over the place,” he said.

Rockefeller suggested its failure to carry out its mission could lie in the daily $2 billion outlay to keep the war going in Iraq, combined with $3 trillion in tax cuts — “virtually all of which I voted against, except the earned income tax credits and things of this sort.” Those have just “wrecked this country,” he said....

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