Investigation of MSHA ordered by labor secretary
By Mike Gorrell The Salt Lake Tribune
August 31, 2007
An unprecedented outside investigation will be conducted into the role of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials in the Crandall Canyon mine disaster.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced the independent probe on Thursday, hours after MSHA named Richard A. Gates to lead the agency's official probe into what happened at Crandall Canyon, where six miners were trapped by a catastrophic collapse of the mine's walls on Aug. 6 and three rescuers were killed and six injured by another implosion 10 days later.
Gates was MSHA's lead investigator into the Jan. 2, 2006 explosion that killed 12 miners at the Sago mine in Upshur County, W.Va.
Also Thursday, a Senate subcommittee disclosed that MSHA director Richard Stickler will be among four people called to testify Wednesday at the first congressional hearing into the disaster.
Mine co-owner Robert Murray is not yet among them. The Murray Energy Corp. president was asked to testify and responded that he would try to attend, but has not confirmed he will be present, according to committee staff.
Chao appointed two retired MSHA officials - Joseph Pavlovich of Gray, Ky., and Earnest Teaster Jr. of King George, Va. - to evaluate the actions and decisions of MSHA personnel before the Crandall Canyon mine's meltdown and during the rescue effort.
"The Crandall Canyon miners, the rescuers who were injured and perished in trying to save others, and the loved ones who have suffered so much in this tragedy continue to be foremost in our thoughts," she said.
Pavlovich was a 30-year veteran at MSHA and an expert on mine rescue operations. He headed three internal post-accident reviews at the agency and participated in a fourth. Pavlovich also assisted Davitt McAteer - who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration and is a long-time advocate of miners' rights - when McAteer reviewed the Sago disaster for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.
Teaster also oversaw three post-accident internal reviews during his 32-year career. His duties ranged from mine inspector to district manager and included responsibility for metal and non-metal mines as well as coal.
"That's not a bad team," said McAteer, now a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He knows of no other outside investigations, although there have been numerous internal reviews.
''When an agency is this close to the industry that it inspects, you have to raise the question, 'Are the inspectors doing the proper thing?' '' McAteer said.
Chao's announcement sparked mixed reviews from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Labor Committee, which has regulatory oversight of MSHA.
"I am pleased that Secretary Chao recognizes the need for a serious investigation of the Crandall Canyon disaster. But the review panel she established today is not independent. She appointed the panel's members, who work at her direction and serve at her pleasure. One could hardly call that independent," he said.
"Congress is weighing different options to ensure that truly independent investigations are conducted of the tragedy at Crandall Canyon and other mining tragedies. These investigations must include a review of MSHA's conduct before, during and after mining disasters," Miller added. "Ultimately, we need an investigation that the families can have confidence in."
Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA attorney and mine regulator in Kentucky, said he suspects Chao is trying to take the steam out of congressional probes with a "pre-emptive strike." But he has high regard for both Pavlovich and Teaster.
"It's a question of whether they will be allowed to conduct a truly independent investigation," said Oppegard, "and if they're given carte blanche over what they investigate or if they're dictated the areas they are allowed to investigate."
Meanwhile, MSHA's investigative team headed by Gates includes six mine-safety officials from agency districts outside of the Intermountain West. An MSHA spokesman said representatives of the state have been invited to participate.
Gates currently is MSHA's district manager in Birmingham, Ala. He has been a ventilation specialist, mining engineer and assistant district manager. A key team member will be Gary Smith, an MSHA supervisor from Pennsylvania with roof control experience.
McAteer called Gates "an experienced and knowledgeable MSHA investigator."