Industry responds to MSHA's UBB internal report

WITH the release of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration’s 308-page internal investigation report into its enforcement efforts and actions regarding the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, both regulators and industry are speaking out – with one commending its commitment to fixing “mistakes” and another calling the findings “appalling”.
Industry responds to MSHA's UBB internal report Industry responds to MSHA's UBB internal report Industry responds to MSHA's UBB internal report Industry responds to MSHA's UBB internal report Industry responds to MSHA's UBB internal report

UMWA president Cecil Roberts

Donna Schmidt

A longtime industry advocate who was serving as state governor at the time of the April 5, 2010 blast that killed 29 workers, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin said it was already known that the tragedy was preventable and that mistakes were made in the time leading up to that day.

“I am pleased that MSHA has identified the mistakes that were made and is committed to addressing those errors so that a tragedy like this one never happens again,” he said.

“You can’t fix anything if you don’t think you did anything wrong and this report is a step in the right direction.”

He stressed that leaving “no stone unturned” in miner safety called for regular updates from the agency on the progress being made to address the identified mistakes.

“Our human resources are our most precious resources and we will do everything we can to ensure their total and complete safety.”

Senator Jay Rockefeller, who was very vocal on mine safety, regulations and then-mine owner Massey Energy in the months following the Raleigh County explosion, called the problems detailed by MSHA “appalling”

“West Virginia families should be able to trust that MSHA is doing everything in its power to keep their loved ones safe. In this case, MSHA clearly did not follow its own safety procedures or enforce the law,” he said.

He said the internal report, as well as the four major probes before it from federal investigators, state investigators, the United Mine Workers of America and an independent panel commissioned in 2010 by Manchin – all pointed to the conduct of an operator that “flouted the law” and regulatory overseers who failed to hold it responsible.

“This is plainly unacceptable … MSHA must address all of the issues raised in this report and make sure such failures never happen again,” he said.

“While MSHA has begun to take corrective actions, administrative action alone will not make our mines as safe as they should be.”

He urged the passage of a comprehensive mine bill he recently introduced that would give federal officials additional enforcement authority as well as provide whistle-blower protections, require routine independent accident investigations and increase criminal penalties.

“It’s way past time for Congress to pass it and give our coal miners the protection they deserve and justice demands,” Rockefeller said.

The UMWA, which also played a significant role in the probe of UBB and even recently released its own investigative report, looked at the “systemic failures” that MSHA must address.

“The UMWA has always believed that three key factors are necessary in order for a mine to be a safe workplace: a mine operator that is willing to follow mine safety laws; mine safety enforcement agencies that are willing to strictly and consistently enforce those laws; and a workforce that is empowered to speak out on its own behalf without fear of retribution,” president Cecil Roberts said.

“None of these elements were present at the Upper Big Branch mine, with tragic results.”

He said that while the facts about Massey’s conduct were already known, the internal review was an illustration of the “many shortcomings” of the agency enforcement process.

Specifically, the UMWA highlighted that MSHA did not complete required inspections logbooks where critical information about conditions were to be recorded.

Also, the supervisory staff of MSHA District 4 – with jurisdiction over the Raleigh County mine – did not follow up on “clearly flagrant violations of the law”

“These and many other failures allowed Massey to continue to get away with violating the law and putting its employees in danger every single day,” Roberts said.

“April 5, 2010 was one day too many.”

The inexperience of MSHA staff was not isolated to UBB, Roberts pointed out.

“This is a nationwide issue at MSHA, the result of years of neglect and indifference by the Bush administration,” he said.

“But frankly, that's still no excuse for what occurred at UBB. And it will provide no solace to the families of the 29 miners who lost their lives there.”

The UMWA was encouraged, he said, to see that MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph Main had moved to address the failures.

“I believe Mr Main has identified what needs to be done and is on the right path. The UMWA stands ready to do all we can to help in that effort.”

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