By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007
U.S. mine safety regulators failed to conduct inspections required by federal law at more than one in seven of the country's 731 underground coal mines last year, a year in which the number of worker deaths in mining accidents more than doubled to 47, a government report says.
Budget constraints and a lack of management emphasis on worker safety by the Bush administration are responsible for the lapses, the Labor Department inspector general said in a report released yesterday. The report details the department's failure to meet inspection mandates of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
Separately, auditors reviewing 21 completed inspections found that Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials failed to document completion of "critical inspection activities" 15 percent of the time.
The 65-page report paints a critical portrait of the performance of Labor's MSHA in a period when a string of mining disasters occurred, including the Crandall Canyon collapse in Utah, which killed six workers and three rescuers in August, the Darby Mine No. 1 explosion in Kentucky, where five miners died in May 2006, and West Virginia's Sago Mine explosion, which killed 12 in January 2006.
The findings are likely to fuel a partisan battle heading into next year's presidential elections, as Democrats in Congress, mine worker unions and safety advocates clash with the administration and mining companies over whether the Labor Department has struck a proper balance between investigating unions and worker safety, and in seeking voluntary compliance from mine companies with regulations instead of assessing fines.
"It is unacceptable that, even in the wake of the Sago and Crandall Canyon disasters, the nation's mine safety agency is failing to do its job," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee.
The report also found that MSHA officials misdated records of the most recent inspections at the Crandall Canyon mine. In one case, an MSHA field supervisor dated his approval of the mine's roof-control plan in February, four months before the May 30 start of the inspection. The cause of the disaster at that mine is under investigation.
"The irregularities described in this report about inspections at the mine appear to be potentially very serious and must be examined immediately and vigorously," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
David James, a spokesman for Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, said the department disagrees with several elements of the report. Department officials look forward, he said, to the conclusions of an independent panel, appointed by Chao to investigate MSHA's performance during the Crandall Canyon disaster.
In the department's response to Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell's report, Richard E. Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said 70 percent of the uncompleted inspections were at mines that were "non-producing, inactive, intermittent or abandoned" during the inspection period.
Stickler said the failure by inspectors to document their work does not mean that the work did not occur. "Valuable and limited enforcement time by our inspectors should be placed primarily on identifying and abating hazards as a result of inspections rather than documentation and paperwork," he wrote.
Federal law requires that mines be inspected four times a year. The inspector general's office found that the MSHA missed 147 inspections at 107 mines employing a total of 7,500 workers.
The report found that inspection resources were strained by a cut in inspectors and an increase in mining operations and accidents that had to be investigated. There was also less money for non-personnel costs and additional agency requirements, the report says.
The number of MSHA coal mine inspectors fell 18 percent between 2002 and 2006, from 605 to 496, while mining activity increased 9 percent nationally. Funding for the coal safety and health agency increased 1 percent over that period, to $117 million, but that was not enough to offset cost-of-living salary increases for its personnel, which grew $6.1 million.
The MSHA has hired 270 inspector trainees since July 2006, launched a plan last month to reassign inspectors and boost overtime, and asked for money to add 244 workers next year.
Auditors also said that MSHA officials misstated inspection statistics in reports and on the agency's Web site, partly because "management did not place adequate emphasis on ensuring the inspections were completed and the reported completion rate was accurate."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.