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Feds To Split District With Upper Big Branch Mine

Tucked into all the proposed 2012 budget news is an interesting tidbit for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is slated for a budget increase of about five percent.

Included is $634,000 to cover the costs of splitting MSHA District 4 in West Virginia, which includes Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine. Twenty-nine miners died there in a massive explosion in April of 2010.

"District 4 has the most employees and the most significant workload with the smallest ratio of supervisory staff to line employees," the MSHA budget request notes. "It has become too large to effectively manage."

That statement raises an important question. Was District 4 "too large to effectively manage" before the Upper Big Branch explosion and if so, why wasn't it split before?

Effective management in an MSHA District includes mine safety inspections and enforcement. The effectiveness of District 4's management and inspections is presumably part of an internal Labor Department review of the Upper Big Branch tragedy.

Labor Department officials hosted a live web chat this afternoon, answering questions about the agency budget.

NPR asked detailed questions about splitting District 4, including what the split says about problems with effective enforcement before April 5. Our questions were ignored during the live web chat.

But Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette did manage to get a response after asking how the split "will help improve mine health and safety in a region that's been a problem for years…"

Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main then posted this brief response:

"Howard B. and Ken — We will be providing more detail on the D4 split."

That was it.

Agency sources tell me that splitting the district was discussed after the 2006 fire that killed two coal miners at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma mine, which is also in District 4 in West Virginia.

An internal review of that accident found "numerous weaknesses" in District 4, including "ineffective use of MSHA's enforcement authority coupled with inadequate supervisory and management oversight."

No split occurred after the Aracoma fire. At a Senate hearing last May, just after the Upper Big Branch disaster, Main said the agency had "recently" asked Congress for supplemental funding to pay for the move.

Just last week, the widows of the two miners killed in the Aracoma blaze were told by a federal judge that they could not sue the MSHA officials involved.

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