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Documents Reveal Extensive Violations At Mine

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Documents Reveal Extensive Violations At Mine


Documents Reveal Extensive Violations At Mine

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Montcoal, West Virginia, today, an announcement that rescue teams will resume searching for four miners who've been missing since Monday. That's when an explosion killed 25 at the mine, owned by the Massey Energy Company.

As families hope and grieve, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration released hundreds of pages of documents. They detail its last three quarterly inspections of the mine.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: President Obama talked about the tragedy today. Speaking in the Rose Garden, he said what miners' families already know, that coal mining is dangerous work.

President BARACK OBAMA: But their government and their employer know that they owe it to these families to do everything possible to ensure their safety when they go to work each day.

OVERBY: And that's the question: Did Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as MSHA, do everything possible, everything they should have done?

The inspection reports indicate that the agency was watching closely at the Upper Big Branch South Mine. They just don't say if it was watching as closely or pushing as hard as it could have.

In the past year, MSHA inspectors wrote up 68 instances of what are called high negligence at the mine, and three cases of reckless disregard. For instance, at 9:40 a.m. on January 7th, an inspector found that airflow had been misdirected away from a primary escape way. He said the foreman said it had been like that for three weeks. He wrote it up, calling it quote, an unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory standard.

Rick Melberth is director of regulatory affairs at the watchdog group OMB Watch.

Mr. RICK MELBERTH (Director, Regulatory Policy, OMB Watch): This isn't business as usual.

OVERBY: He's been comparing Upper Big Branch South to other mines around the country. And when it comes to enforcement - or lack of it - he says this mine is in a class by itself.

Mr. MELBERTH: Because they don't seem to be changing their behavior in any way. There are huge mines out there that produce a lot more coal, have a lot more hours worked, and can operate without violations.

OVERBY: The National Mining Association, the trade association for mine owners, argues just the opposite. It says that ever since 2007, enforcement has been too rigid. That's when Congress added more inspectors after two big mine accidents, and the Bush administration reversed its usual stance. It ended the practice of letting mine operators negotiate with MSHA before getting written up.

Here's the Mining Association's Luke Popovich.

Mr. LUKE POPOVICH (Spokesman, National Mining Association): I think they thought that it would be sort of tougher enforcement, to eliminate an opportunity for operators to have an early chance of knocking down or adjudicating these fines.

OVERBY: So with that alternative gone, more mining companies are fighting back when they get fined. Most of these challenges go to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. The new chairman, Mary Lu Jordan, told a congressional committee recently that the case load has skyrocketed.

Ms. MARY LU JORDAN (Chairman, Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission): Currently, there's a backlog of approximately 16,000.

OVERBY: But critics say that's not the whole story on enforcement when it comes to Massey Energy. Tony Oppegard is a lawyer in Lexington, Kentucky. He specializes in representing miners and their families.

Mr. TONY OPPEGARD (Attorney): In this instance, I don't think that MSHA did enough to protect the miners in that Massey mine. They did not use all the enforcement tools at their disposal.

OVERBY: The tool he's referring to: If the violations were egregious enough, MSHA could have gone to a federal court and asked the judge to shut down the mine, at least temporarily. MSHA hasn't ever done that, not with Upper Big Branch South, and not with any other mine.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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