Did MSHA miss a key inspection the week before Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine blew up?

March 31, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.


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.

3 Responses to “Did MSHA miss a key inspection the week before Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine blew up?”

  1. wjohn101 says:

    The 5, 10 or 15 day spot inspections determined by methane liberation in a 24 hour period were intended to ensure that MSHA inspectors maintained a presence at the mine. A few years ago MSHA inspectors actually got to inspect, now they are weighted down with hours of paperwork requirements every day (thank goodness). Back then most mines, even big ones were inspected in their entirety in about a month or so, leaving two months for a mine to be inspector free. That’s where the methane spot inspections came in, they would still show up in the required spot inspection time frame to make sure that methane was under control.

    Now, due to paperwork it takes two or three inspectors the whole quarter to do a big mine; they’re there almost every day and there’s really no need for the additional spot inspections. Every time an inspector is underground he is essentially inspecting some aspect of the mine that deals with methane liberation and control.

    Whether MSHA inspectors missed one of these spot inspections is not all that critical, in fact they are generally a waste of time since they don’t contribute towards the required quarterly inspection, but that’s the government for you.

  2. old one says:

    WJOHN101 from the tone of your comment I get the feeling you are mine operator or foreman. As a retired inspector I may shead some light on the inspections. As you stated after the 1977 mine act was passed we had a mine list on the average of 25 mine to inspect every quarter you went in the face and inspected the equipment then you traveled the belt or return and tried to finish in 3 or 4 days the operator got use to these inspections and could time you as to when you would finish and when the next inspection was due the notes were not that inportant back in those days. Now fast forward some during this period there were several explosions in Va, WVa, and Ky mine fires in Co. and the list just went on. Tough times for MSHA. Congress then got involved just as they are doing now and no inspector input was sought. Regular inspector screwed again more paper work required to cover his own hide coal miner left out in the cold. For each inspection hour underground it will take at least 10 pages of note detailing ever move an inspector makes and this takes away from the underground inspection time. the time will break down something like this 4 hrs MMU (Mech. Mining Unit) 2.5hrs surface areas of underground mine, 1.5hrs travel time for an 8 hour shift. Now let look at the mmu time. getting dressed to go underground is listed as underground time travel to the work area under ground is also counted to mmu so just how must time is left for inspection time on the section. Now for a 103i this inspection is not to be counted toward a eo1 or what use to be an AAA inspection thats not to say an inspector can’t finish the 103i inspection and then do the AAA work how ever not all inspector choose to do this just in case an something happens like an explosion the reason being is the inspector will have an event number and note to back him up or as its know CYA himself. Now what everybody needs to keep in mind is that MSHA is looking for a regular inspector to place all the blame on. And that folks is the way it works in MSHA if it anit in your notes and your time sheet then you didn’t do it.

  3. old one says:

    ps to above the reason so many inspectors are at the mine these days is they have no place to inspect, that keeps them working due to the fact that there is not as many coal mines as there use to be so the MSHA supervisor sends them out in 2 or 3 man teams because you can’t pay these people for setting in the office. Most of the regular inspector mine load is 2 or 3 mmu per inspector. Question is do we need all of them at this time?

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