Rahall wants answers on mine inspections
Charleston Gazette - WV, USA
By Ken Ward Jr
.September 20, 2007
Rep. Nick Rahall is tired of reading about Southern West Virginia coal miners dying in mines that federal regulators have not properly inspected.
The Democrat, whose district includes the state’s southern coalfields, fired off a letter on Tuesday to Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
“I want to know, and certainly I hope that MSHA would like to know, exactly why the agency is failing to conduct the inspections required by law,” Rahall told Stickler in the letter.
Rahall cited a Tuesday Gazette report about a Logan County mine where a worker fell to his death while building a new ventilation shaft.
MSHA inspectors had not conducted required complete reviews of Arch Coal Inc.’s Mountaineer II Mine in each of the last two quarters, according to agency records.
Two weeks ago, the Gazette reported that MSHA inspectors had not yet performed any required quarterly inspections this year at CONSOL Energy’s Bronzite Mine in Mingo County before a Sept. 3 roof fall death.
“MSHA has yet to explain to the coal-mining community why this lapse was allowed to occur,” Rahall said. “And, once again, we are learning about similar failures by MSHA to conduct proper inspections.
“If the media can conduct a fairly simple review of MSHA’s Web site and learn that the agency is not completing quarterly inspections, certainly MSHA can do the same and act on that information to correct these lapses,” Rahall said.
The Gazette also has determined that a third West Virginia mining death occurred at an operation where MSHA was behind on its required inspections.
On Aug. 4, 25-year-old Stevie Joe Browning was killed in an equipment accident at Rockhouse Creek Development’s No. 8 Mine in Mingo County.
MSHA officials conducted complete inspections for the first and second quarters of the year between March 7 and March 28 and between April 3 and May 11. At the time of the death, MSHA had not yet started a required inspection for the third quarter — and still has not begun that inspection, according to agency records.
And at a fourth coal mine where a worker was killed this year, MSHA inspectors also are behind on their required quarterly inspections.
MSHA inspectors began a complete review of CONSOL Energy’s Mine 84 in Washington County, Pa., on Feb. 6. They were still conducting that inspection when a fatal accident occurred on April 5.
The complete inspection was finished on May 2, records show.
On May 24, MSHA began its second quarterly complete inspection of Mine 84, but still have not finished that inspection or started a complete review for the third quarter of 2007, records show.
In all, MSHA officials were behind schedule in performing required quarterly inspections at four of the eight underground mines nationwide where coal miners have died on the job this year.
Under federal law, MSHA must inspect all underground coal mines in their entirety at least four times per year. For years, MSHA policy and practice has been that those inspections must be done one per quarter.
On Wednesday, MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci said the agency’s Southern West Virginia district had implemented a policy to “use enhanced spot inspections in lieu of select regular inspections ... to ensure MSHA’s presence at every mine, every quarter.”
Faraci could not say when that program started, who approved it, or whether it had been discontinued.
Stickler made a vague reference to “enhanced spot inspections” during a Sept. 5 congressional hearing when Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., grilled him about the agency’s failure to conduct a complete inspection yet this year of the Bronzite Mine.
“I was told this morning that the spot inspections that MSHA conducted, one each quarter, were what MSHA refers to as enhanced spot inspections,” Stickler said, according to a transcript. “They were not referred to as full regular inspections, because they did not cover every area of the mine, but they went beyond the normal spot inspections.”
Generally, MSHA policies state that spot inspections are not to be counted toward meeting the legally required quarterly reviews.
But Jesse Cole, who was MSHA’s Southern West Virginia district manager from July 2004 through August 2006, said that doing so was common practice. “That is nothing new,” Cole said.