The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 19, 2011

UPDATED: Report also criticizes regulators in UBB mine blast

By Tim Huber
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — The independent investigation that blames the deadliest U.S. coal mine explosion in decades on owner Massey Energy Co. also points out problems with how federal and state regulators policed the West Virginia coal mine where 29 died last year.

Thursday’s report said the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration could have done more to force Massey to follow the law at its Upper Big Branch Mine. The report faults West Virginia’s mine regulators for failing to recognize ventilation, coal dust and other problems at the Raleigh County mine.

The 113-page report was compiled by a team led by former federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief J. Davitt McAteer. The report has 11 findings and 52 recommendations relating to the explosion and how to improve mine safety.

Federal regulators are criticized for failing to recognize the danger posed by Massey’s inability to properly ventilate the Raleigh County mine. It also says the agency should have ordered Massey to make recommended safety improvements after gas outbursts from the mine’s floor in 2003 and 2004.

“The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that the agency failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners,” the report said. “The ultimate failure of MSHA at UBB was the agency’s ability to see the entire picture, the inability to connect the dots of the many potentially catastrophic failures taking place at the mine.”

MSHA chief Joe Main defended his agency, countering that inspectors had issued more orders closing sections of that mine for serious safety violations than for any of the country’s 14,000 mines.

“This was a mine where the mine operator just miserably failed to comply with the law and put into place a number of protections,” Main told The Associated Press.

Since the April 5, 2010, explosion, MSHA has targeted problem mines, including many owned by Massey, for so-called impact inspections. And for the first time, it has gone to federal court to force a mine to close. Massey settled that case by closing its Freedom Energy mine in Kentucky.

“We’re a find it and fix it bunch here,” Main said. “The tools that we’re using, this impact inspection program that was crafted at the heels of the Upper Big Branch.”

As for West Virginia, the report concluded the understaffed Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training has but 52 inspectors to cover 261 underground mines and 2,300 contractors. The report singles out the state’s inability to make sure Massey controlled coal dust, which investigators say fueled the explosion, and spot ventilation problems.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the state has already addressed several of the report’s recommendations, such as providing $5,000 pay raises to attract and keep mine inspectors. The state also has hired inspectors to ensure compliance with regulations requiring mines to be coated with pulverized rock to control explosive coal dust, he said.

The state should start conducting its own rock dust testing by July 1, Tomblin said.

“It is my hope this action will further improve mining safety,” he said.

The agency also has begun sending more inspectors to large mines such as Upper Big Branch and having inspectors visit mines at odd hours.

Former Gov. Joe Manchin hired McAteer to conduct the Upper Big Branch report. Manchin had also hired McAteer to look at issues involving the 2006 explosion at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine, which killed 12, and the fire at Massey’s Aracoma No. 1 mine, which killed two.