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Mine Safety In America

Mine Safety Office That Oversees Upper Big Branch Mine Splits

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released details Tuesday about something we first reported here Monday.

The agency is breaking up the district office in West Virginia that oversees Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine, where 29 mine workers died in a violent explosion last year.

In a news release, MSHA suggests District 4 in southern West Virginia is overwhelmed with 400 coal mines that required 23,282 safety citations in FY 2009.

That's 20 percent of the nation's coal mines with 27 percent of the country's coal mining machines.

The agency's "most extensive workload" is handled by more employees than any other district but it also has "the smallest ratio of managers and supervisors to line staff."

"Resources must be reallocated to allow MSHA's coal division to effectively carry out its mission," says assistant secretary of labor Joe Main.

Missing from the news release is any mention of District 4's troubled past, which includes:

  • a 2007 internal review of the Aracoma mine disaster, which cites "ineffective use of MSHA's enforcement authority coupled with inadequate supervisory and management oversight" in District 4. Two coal miners died at Aracoma.
  • a 2007 report from the Inspector General of the Labor Department, in which District 4 had 85 percent of the nation's missed mine safety inspections the year before.
  • a 2009 agency audit reporting MSHA's intentional limits on tough enforcement actions against coal mines with persistent safety violations due to "resource limitations." Half the mines that had not received heightened scrutiny and enforcement were in District 4.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette reported even more problems with District 4 enforcement, going back decades, in this story in 2007.

In a brief interview today, Main said he can't explain why his predecessors in the Bush Administration didn't split the district sooner. But he says the Upper Big Branch mine had "rigorous ongoing enforcement" before last April's explosion despite the workload and management problems in District 4.

Main adds that District 4's oversight of the mine "is part of the ongoing investigation" of the explosion "and part of the internal review" of MSHA'S enforcement.

A federal criminal investigation is also underway.

MSHA says the process of splitting District 4 will begin later this year.