Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that President Obama would meet that day with Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joseph A. Main. That meeting is scheduled for Thursday.

U.S. mine safety agency faulted on choice of man to lead probe into explosion

Phillip Cash kisses daughter Hannah Cash, who holds a picture of her grandfather Michael Elswick, one of the miners killed last week.
Phillip Cash kisses daughter Hannah Cash, who holds a picture of her grandfather Michael Elswick, one of the miners killed last week. (Tim Hindman/charleston Daily Via Associated Press)
By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

After a coal mine explosion that killed five people in 2006, an internal review by the Mine Safety and Health Administration sharply criticized its own inspection process. It said many safety flaws had not been corrected before the blast because of faulty inspection practices "coupled with weak supervisory, managerial and headquarters oversight."

Now the MSHA district manager who oversaw that mine's inspections has been named to lead the investigation of what went wrong at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, where an explosion last week killed 29 workers.

Former regulators and industry experts said MSHA should have chosen someone else to investigate last week's accident in West Virginia, the deadliest in a quarter-century.

"Does it concern me that a district manager who was involved in a previous devastating accident where multiple problems were not picked up by MSHA is running the investigation? Absolutely, that is troublesome," said Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, an industry newsletter. She said the agency should have chosen someone familiar with MSHA but not employed by it.

Other experts said MSHA should convene a public hearing, which is the only way for the agency to use subpoena power. MSHA has only held one public hearing about coal mine safety, and that was in 1977.

"That is the only way MSHA has of getting at the truth," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA lawyer.

The questions about MSHA's investigation were one part of the continuing controversy surrounding last week's coal mine disaster as President Obama prepared to meet Wednesday with Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and MSHA head Joseph A. Main.

Two major institutional shareholders -- including the New York state comptroller, who acts as trustee for one of the state's pension funds -- have called on Massey Energy's board of directors to oust the company's chairman, Don L. Blankenship. Massey director Bobby Inman, a former NSA director and CIA deputy director, rejected the call.

The bodies of the last four victims were removed from the mine Tuesday, but MSHA has not released the names, jobs and experience levels of the miners killed, deferring to Massey. The company declined to release the information, citing "privacy" concerns. In previous disasters, MSHA has released that information promptly, industry experts said.

West Virginia, whose regulators have compiled their own long list of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, has appointed a former federal regulator, J. Davitt McAteer, to prepare a separate report about the accident.

In each of the past two years, the mine received close to 300 safety citations from the state, more than double the number in 2006. And in the first three months of this year, the state's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training had highlighted, among other concerns, unresolved ventilation problems "of a serious nature and involving an extraordinarily high degree of negligence or gravity."

On Tuesday, Solis blamed a "computer glitch" in October 2009 for MSHA's a failure to notify Massey Energy that its Upper Big Branch mine fell into the category of "potential pattern of [safety] violation" that could have led to stricter enforcement measures. MSHA said its computer failed to count eight citations.

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