CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Federal inspectors missed obvious
problems and failed to follow procedures before three high-profile
accidents last year that killed 19 men at underground coal mines,
the Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday.
Numerous steps are planned to correct the internal failings MSHA
uncovered during reviews of its actions at the three mines in West
Virginia and Kentucky before and during the accidents. One is the
creation of an internal accountability office charged with avoiding
lapses in enforcement policies and procedures, the agency said.
Another is referring potential misconduct by MSHA inspectors to
the Department of Labor for investigation. MSHA said it found
several questionable conduct by inspectors assigned to Massey
Energy Co.'s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, where two men
were killed in a conveyer belt fire Jan. 19, 2006.
"MSHA's internal review teams identified a number of
deficiencies in our enforcement programs, which I found deeply
disturbing," director Richard Stickler said. "The creation of the
Office of Accountability ... will add enhanced oversight, at the
highest level in the agency, to ensure that we are doing our utmost
to enforce safety and health laws in our nation's mines."
Internal reviews found that didn't always happen at Alma, the
Sago Mine, or the Darby Mine in Kentucky.
"The internal review teams did not find evidence that MSHA's
actions caused the fatal accidents," Stickler said in a memo to
employees, "although at Aracoma the inactions of MSHA personnel
contributed to the severity of the accident."
MSHA found its inspectors missed numerous violations inside Alma
and did not require Massey to take corrective action. The agency
fined Massey a record $1.5 million in March for 25 violations it
determined contributed to the deaths of two miners in the Jan. 19,
"The number and nature of the issues identified in the
inspections at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 indicates significant
lapses on the part of MSHA inspectors, field office supervisors and
District 4 management," MSHA said. "Effective oversight by
supervision and management would have identified and possibly
prevented many of these lapses."
An attorney representing the widows of the miners killed at Alma
said he's pleased with the level of detail in the Aracoma review.
"Obviously we are displeased with what the results of that
investigation show, which appears to be an uncomfortable alliance
between members of MSHA responsible for inspecting this Massey
operation and Massey Energy itself," Bruce Stanley said. Stanley
is suing Richmond, Va.-based Massey over the deaths of miners
Ellery Elvis Hatfield and Don I. Bragg.
Specifically troubling to Stanley are findings that MSHA
reassigned Alma to a different field office after receiving
complaints from mine management. "After what appear to be some
serious violations that were identified in 2001, the inspection
teams were apparently reassigned at what would almost appear to be
the request of Massey," he said.
Equally troubling are the allegations of misconduct by MSHA
personnel, Stanley said. "We're very interested in finding out or
learning more with regard to the allegations of employee
Likewise, MSHA found a laundry list of safety violations that
were not documented by inspectors at Darby before the explosion.
Five miners died when a cutting torch ignited methane gas
leaking through a wall designed to seal an abandoned area of the
mine May 20, 2006.
Foreman Amon Brock and maintenance worker Jimmy Lee were cutting
away metal straps that intersected the top of the seal and were
used as underground roof supports.
According to witness testimony, Brock had said he had to make
repairs to the area before the inspector, Stanley Sturgill,
returned two days later.
During the investigation, Sturgill said through MSHA attorneys
that he never inspected the seal. And though he had spoken with
Brock before the explosion, he said there was no discussion of
seals or removing roof straps.
Among other problems noted in the Darby review:
-Failure to abide by an approved roof control plan
-Failure to properly construct intake seals
-Inadequately maintaining an alternate escapeway
-Not following rules on escape drills
-Violating fire protection standards for belt conveyors
MSHA also found inspectors failed to adequately document
deficiencies in mine record books that include reports on hazards
and failed to determine whether qualified miners checked the mine
for methane and used properly calibrated gas detectors. Other
problems included failing to document inspections of emergency roof
support supplies and rarely documenting air quality readings at the
At Sago, MSHA faulted itself for setting the strength
requirement for so-called alternative seals too low years before
the accident. A methane gas explosion in a sealed area of the mine
destroyed 10 seals and allowed blast forces to enter the mine's
active workings. Thirteen miners were unable to escape after the
explosion and all but one died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
MSHA has since upped the standard for the lightweight block
seals to 50 pounds of pressure per square inch. In May, the agency
issued an emergency rule requiring mine operators to strengthen all
The Sago review also faults MSHA for failing to address
lightning as a potential cause of methane gas explosions. The
agency determined that lightning ignited methane that had built up
in a sealed area of the Sago Mine.
MSHA also determined that its personnel failed to follow
established inspection procedures, resulting in deficient
enforcement at Sago. The accident also pointed out numerous areas
where MSHA's ability to respond to an emergency could be improved,
including the fact that a seismic location system designed to
locate trapped miners is obsolete and has never worked.
Associated Press writer Samira Jafari in Pikeville contributed
to this story.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)