U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration faces training and oversight problems

About 50 mourners gathered Tuesday at a small West Virginia church a few miles from the site of a deadly mine explosion to remember the 25 victims and pray for four missing miners.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The federal government's mine safety agency is not properly tracking the retraining of its veteran inspectors and is facing a mounting backlog of appeals of health and safety violations from mining companies, according to concerned government auditors and lawmakers.

Monday's deadly blast at a West Virginia coal mine, where at least 25 workers died, has focused new attention on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which has more strictly enforced mine safety regulations in recent years. The agency stepped up its efforts after the 2006 Sago (W.Va.) mine disaster killed 12 workers and prompted the federal government's first major reforms in almost three decades.

A little over half of MSHA's roughly 2,400 employees perform inspections of the nation's coal mines, gravel pits, quarries and gold and silver mines, the agency said. Hundreds of new inspectors have joined the payroll since the Sago blast, expanding MSHA's inspection force by more than 26 percent.

But a government audit released last week faulted the agency for poorly retraining its veteran inspectors. Fifty-six percent of them failed to attend required retraining courses during a two-year training cycle that started in 2006, the audit said. MSHA failed to track and ensure completion of retraining courses and did not punish inspectors who failed to attend courses, according to the report by the Labor Department inspector general. MSHA is part of the Labor Department.

Enforcement was so lax that a new recruit performed inspections without completing minimum entry-level training and without defined circumstances that permitted recruits to skip training, the report said. Auditors recommended that MSHA hold supervisors accountable if inspectors failed to complete retraining and suggested suspending an inspector if they failed to complete retraining. Agency leadership agreed with the recommendations and said they will hold district managers, assistant district managers and field supervisors accountable if inspectors fail to complete retraining.

MSHA staffers must inspect mines on a quarterly basis, and they completed all mandated inspections in the last two years, according to MSHA Deputy Director Greg Wagner. Citations issued by inspectors have grown by about 30 percent since 2006, the agency said.

But stricter enforcement has prompted more appeals from mining companies looking to avoid paying bigger penalties. The companies may challenge violations and penalties to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

Commission Chairwoman Mary Lu Jordan told a House panel in February that the length of the appeals process has grown in the past three years from an average 178 days to 401 days.

The Obama administration's fiscal 2011 budget includes funding to add four more judges to the commission's 10-judge panel, but the commission has said it needs a total of 26 judges to significantly reduce the backlog.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, credited the agency for beefing up enforcement and faulted companies for delaying the process.

"Miners' lives are in the crosshairs," Miller said at the hearing.

In an interview Tuesday, Wagner said that the agency's employees have a sense of mission.

"A number of people have told me -- even people who are in office jobs -- that they have relatives, fathers, brothers, cousins, who have been miners and how that's motivated them to really devote their careers to improve protection for the health and safety and well-being of miners," he said.

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