Independent team will review MSHA's record of W.Va. mine explosion

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Labor Department will establish an independent team of safety experts to evaluate the Mine Safety and Health Administration's internal review of the April 5 explosion at a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 workers, officials said Friday.

The establishment of the independent evaluation follows criticism of MSHA's own internal review team, which is being led by Norman Page, a veteran agency employee who oversaw inspections in a district where a similar explosion occurred in 2006. After that blast, an MSHA review sharply criticized the district's oversight efforts, saying they "permitted poor performance to continue uncorrected at all levels."

After the blast this month, industry experts and former regulators also questioned whether the agency's own team could objectively judge their colleagues.

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis on Friday asked John Howard, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to lead the independent analysis of MSHA's review and to identify people with the appropriate experience to serve on his team. Howard, a physician, coordinated programs monitoring the effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks on people in the area.

MSHA is part of the Labor Department. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Health and Human Services Department.

Both the MSHA internal review of the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine and the independent analysis of that review will be made public, the Labor Department said Friday.

"I am confident that MSHA will conduct a thorough and complete review of the actions of the mine operator and its own actions at the Upper Big Branch mine," Solis said in a statement. "To ensure accountability, I've asked for an outside team to review the policy, process and substance of MSHA's internal review. This independent evaluation will help ensure that we're doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of America's miners."

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