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Internal audits detail MSHA's failings

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety inspectors did not conduct adequate reviews of coal-mining operations and failed to step up enforcement actions against mines that routinely violated the law, according to a series of internal audits made public late Friday.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration managers did not properly supervise or train inspectors, and MSHA officials did not do enough to look critically at their own actions and improve agency performance, according to the audits.

More than 50 audits examining MSHA field offices from Alabama to Utah detail a variety of troubling glimpses into an agency that's again come under increasing scrutiny following last April's explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Auditors who visited MSHA's field office in Norton, Va., for example, found that inspectors often did not catch safety problems related to active conveyor belts. They also overlooked delays by a mine operator in keeping emergency-escape equipment properly placed as mining activities progressed underground.

Reviewers who visited an MSHA office in Franklin, Tenn., concluded that agency officials there didn't perform "complete and thorough" inspections or force a mine operator to fix long-standing safety hazards.

Also, at MSHA's field office in Harlan County, Ky., auditors discovered that spot inspections of especially dangerous mines were not performed on the legally required schedule. Inspectors in the office did not issue enforcement actions that matched the problems outlined in their own inspection notes, auditors found.

"Evaluations of gravity, negligence, number of persons affected and the level of enforcement do not always appear consistent with inspection notes, the narrative portion of the citation, or MSHA policy," the January 2010 audit said.

Audits of MSHA field offices in Morgantown, Pineville and Summersville found similar problems.

MSHA released the audits under pressure from Republican members of Congress, following an early March report in The Charleston Gazette that revealed the previously secret findings of an audit summary provided to a U.S. Senate committee less than two weeks before the Upper Big Branch disaster.

That audit summary, though, detailed only the results of 30 audit reports performed through Dec. 31, 2009. MSHA on Friday disclosed more than 20 other audits, including many that were not addressed in the earlier summary.

"I firmly believe that, like any responsible government agency, MSHA should continuously review its activities to improve its efficiency and performance," MSHA chief Joe Main said in a prepared statement.

"Conducting audits is not a new practice for MSHA -- they've been carried out for years," Main said, "but beyond that, it's important to do more than identify and correct specific issues. We take these findings seriously and are implementing new training, and revising policies and procedures to ensure that common problems that have been identified do not crop up again and again."

The newly released audit findings, though, mirror conclusions of numerous MSHA internal reviews conducted after major mining disasters over the past 20 years, as well as repeated criticism from the Labor Department Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Also, MSHA's internal auditing and accountability programs had been harshly criticized several times by Labor Department's Inspector General as being inadequate.

Then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler created the accountability office in June 2007, in response to scathing internal reviews about MSHA's performance prior to disasters the previous year at the Sago, Aracoma and Darby mines.

However, MSHA did not regularly make public any of the audits by that office, and only provided Congress a report on its activities because lawmakers required the summary as part of an appropriations bill.

In the audits released Friday, MSHA removed the names of mining companies and individual mines where agency inspection and enforcement activities were reviewed. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said that material was removed to protect the identity of agency inspectors and "because of open litigation."

In a news release, MSHA said the audits identified instances of inadequate supervisory reviews of inspections, which agency officials blamed on "widespread attrition that resulted in many field office supervisors having five or fewer years with the agency.

"MSHA has developed and conducted a training program specifically tailored to provide supervisors with the essential tools to successfully carry out their functions," the news release said. "By the end of April, all metal and nonmetal supervisors will have completed this training. Supervisory training for coal mine safety and health supervisors will be scheduled during the next six months."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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