Coal Tattoo


Testimony at today’s Senate committee hearing has raised a new question about the performance of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the days just prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

Did MSHA fail to perform a mandated inspection meant to help protect miners from a methane explosion?

The issue came up when MSHA chief Joe Main was being questioned today by Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican and the ranking GOP member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Enzi asked Main:

Was UBB scheduled for a 103(i) spot inspection? And were those completed?

And Main responded:

They were scheduled for those. As far as were they all completed, that’s something that will be assessed.

Wow. That’s something that will be assessed? I’ve asked MSHA to clarify Joe Main’s answer, but so far I have not received any sort of clarification.

UPDATED: MSHA just issued this statement in response to my request for clarification of Joe Main’s testimony —

We have found no evidence that we missed the timeframe for completing spot inspections at UBB, based on the procedures in place. In addition, the Internal Review team will examine MSHA records thoroughly to ensure that we have met those inspection requirements.

In the meantime, some background is needed to understand this.

First, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act required MSHA to conduct complete inspections of all underground coal mines nationwide once every quarter.

But, Section 103(i) of the law also required additional “spot inspections” for mines that generate large quantities of methane, have been the site of previous methane ignitions that caused deaths or serious injuries, or are known to have some other especially hazardous condition. By law, MSHA must conduct these spot inspections “of all or part of such mine during every five working days at irregular intervals.”

And yes, under federal law, Upper Big Branch was a mine that liberated large quantities of methane. It wasn’t especially gassy, compared to mines in Alabama, for example. But, the law says 103(i) inspections must be done every five working days for all mines that liberate more than 1 million cubic feet of methane in a 24-hour period.  MSHA has previously said that Upper Big Branch was liberating 1,067,510 cubic feet of methane per 24 hours.

So, I checked MSHA’s records for the Upper Big Branch Mine and in the months prior to the disaster, there was a steady list of 103(i) spot inspections: January 7, January 15January 28, February 8, February 17, February 26, March 4, March 15, March 25 … But then, there wasn’t another 103(i) inspection until April 12, a week after the deadly explosion.

Now, MSHA inspectors did begin a regular, quarterly inspection of the mine on April 1. But MSHA guidance documents indicate that spot inspections for “gassy mines” are supposed to be more focused:

The inspection shall pertain to the specific reason the mine was selected for a 103(i) inspection. For example, if a mine is included because it liberates excessive quantities of methane, 103(i) inspections should focus on working section ventilation, general mine ventilation, mining activities related to methane liberation, bleeder systems, seals, or other areas where methane is likely to accumulate.

Stay tuned …  I’ll update this if MSHA clarifies the matter.


MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere just provided this bit of new information, which may clarify things, at least a bit.

UBB had been on a 10-day spot inspection. In the second quarter of FY 2010, (Jan 1-Mar 31, 2010), bottle samples indicated that they should be put on a 5-day spot inspection, which would have begun at the beginning of the third quarter of the fiscal year (April 1).

Under the Mine Act, operations that liberate more than 500,000 cubic feet but less than 1 million cubic feet of methane every 24 hours are put on a schedule for spot inspections every 10 days.

So what MSHA appears to be saying is that MSHA found that UBB was generating more than 1 million cubic feet of methane per 24 hours sometime toward the end of the first quarter of 2010, and put them then on a schedule for spot inspections every 5 days starting on April 1.

MSHA performed a spot inspection on March 25 … and the explosion occurred on April 5 — 11 days total (9 days if you don’t count Saturday or Sunday, 10 days if you count Saturday, but not Sunday — I believe at UBB they worked on Saturday, April 3, but not on Sunday, April 4, which was Easter) after that last spot inspection. The next spot inspection was on April 12, after the explosion and the recovery operation.