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The federal agency responsible for coalmine safety is taking a look at its own failures. Today, it released an internal review related to the massive mine explosion two years ago in West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners died in what was the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration says former owner, Massey Energy, still bears all the blame, but, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, the internal review cites mistakes made by the agency.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: The Mine Safety and Health Administration's internal review team went back 18 months before the blast to try to find out how conditions could get so bad and become so deadly at the mine then owned by Massey Energy.
It lists inadequate federal safety inspections, inadequate training for inspectors and supervisors, inadequate supervision and too few inspectors. All of that caused the agency to both miss and respond to safety violations, according to the agency's George Fesak, who spoke to reporters on a noisy phone line.
GEORGE FESAK: We didn't recognize the violations for a number of reasons: training experience, leadership. But as the head of the internal review team, I don't really see where we caused that explosion.
BERKES: Actually, the internal review details several key failures that certainly contributed to the explosion, including the failure to respond to an inundation of explosive methane gas in the mine in 2004. That's the same kind of methane gas buildup that ignited the Upper Big Branch explosion. But recommendations for addressing that problem were lost in agency paperwork and not passed on to mine safety officials. Inspectors failed to spot excessive accumulations of explosive coal dust, which turned the methane ignition into a massive blast.
Ed Clair is the agency's former chief lawyer.
EDWARD CLAIR: I don't think the agency's failures caused the explosion, but I do think that the agency's failures contributed to some of the severity of the explosion.
BERKES: An explosion that was less severe might not have traveled so far underground and killed so many. Clair notes that the review found similar shortcomings in earlier mine disasters, especially when it comes to incomplete safety inspections and inadequate oversight by managers and the responsibility for that goes from the bottom to the top, says Davitt McAteer, the former Federal Mine Safety chief at MSHA who led an independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch tragedy.
DAVITT MCATEER: You have an overload of the system. You have a understaffed district office. You have weak leadership in that district office. That's what the top management is supposed to look at. That wasn't done.
BERKES: George Fesak, the internal review team leader, blamed budget cuts during the administration of President George W. Bush. Fesak also said emergency funding six years ago had the agency catching up when the explosion occurred.
Still, Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main did accept some responsibility.
JOSEPH MAIN: I don't think there's any question that MSHA could have done better. I don't think there's any question that we surely plan to do better.
BERKES: Main outlined steps the agency has already taken, including hiring more inspectors, improving training and targeting problem lines with surprise inspections. Main also said the agency will now consider whether any mine safety officials or employees should be disciplined.
Gary Quarles sat through a two hour private briefing on the review for families of the 29 miners who died at Upper Big Branch. He lost his son Gary Wayne and he said there was nothing comforting about the review's findings.
GARY QUARLES: I lay most of the responsibility on MSHA and the state for not doing their job to protect these coalminers. MSHA's got to do their job to make it safe for the coalminers nowadays.
BERKES: So far, the federal criminal investigation of the disaster is targeting managers and executives at Massey Energy. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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