Coal Tattoo

Is MSHA’s enforcement strategy working?

About once a month now, we’re treated to a press release from the Obama administration, touting the results of the most recent “impact inspections” launched by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration under the orders of MSHA chief Joe Main (See here, here, here and here).

Typically, these releases include quotes from Main about why MSHA is doing these inspection sweeps and how well the strategy is working, but how not all mine operators are getting the message … something along these lines:

In spite of our relentless attempts to make mine operators accountable for their workers’ safety and health, some continue to flout their responsibilities. While we are seeing improvements at a number of operations, the persistently bad behavior at others underscores the need for tougher legislation and stronger enforcement tools.

And then we get press releases like the one yesterday:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that federal inspectors issued 20 withdrawal orders and five citations to Randolph Mine in Boone County, W.Va., during an impact inspection conducted in April. Eleven of the orders were issued for violations of the ventilation plan at the underground coal mine owned by Massey Energy and operated by Inman Energy.

The press release spelled out troubling findings of federal inspectors at this mine:

— Two sets of mining equipment were simultaneously and illegally engaged in cutting, mining and loading coal and rock from working places within the same working section, and neither set of mining equipment was on a separate split of intake air. This condition exposed miners to respirable dust hazards that could result in permanently disabling injuries such as black lung and other respiratory diseases.

— Combustible materials in the form of loose coal, coal dust and float coal dust were allowed to accumulate in active workings, which can contribute to a mine explosion.

— During the mining process, the continuous miner operator and shuttle car operator were engulfed in visible coal dust from cutting coal and rock while the area was on a reduced dust standard due to excessive quartz.

— Ventilation curtains, which are necessary to provide proper ventilation to prevent mine explosions and black lung, were not being used in certain working areas.

— Water pressure was insufficient on the continuous miner’s water sprays, which suppress dust, and prevent sparking and methane ignitions.

And it quotes Main, the former UMWA safety director, commenting on the behavior of  probably the most anti-union coal operator around:

The conduct and behavior exhibited when we caught the mine operator by surprise is nothing short of outrageous. Despite the tragedy at Upper Big Branch last year, and all our efforts to bring mine operators into compliance, some still aren’t getting it. The conditions observed at Randolph Mine place miners at serious risk to the threat of fire, explosion and black lung. Yet, MSHA inspectors can’t be at every mine every day. Our continuing challenge is counteracting the egregious behavior of certain mine operators.

Now, the Labor Department put out this press release after 5:30 p.m. yesterday … and like a lot of the media, I had little time to really examine this situation and do much of a story. Howard Berkes over at NPR was one of the few to even have time to get any sort of response from Massey:

“We were very disappointed by the results of the inspection,” says Shane Harvey, Massey’s vice president and general counsel. “We are reviewing the situation carefully and have already disciplined several individuals.”

And Howard also had an interesting line from MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere, noting that this particular mine had “exhibited similar behavior in the past.” That got me thinking, so I looked more closely this morning at the enforcement papers that MSHA provided last evening from this Randolph Mine inspection.

One thing jumped out at me right away. In citing Massey for not complying with its MSHA-approved ventilation plan, federal inspectors noted:

Standard 75.370(a)(1) was cited 61 times in two years at mine 4609244 (61 to operator, 0 to a contractor).

MSHA inspectors went on to recount numerous previous citations for accumulations of explosive coal dust (22) and for improper roof control practices (31) in the last two years.

Now, MSHA’s press release did make note of a previous problem at the Randolph Mine:

In March 2010, MSHA received an anonymous complaint about hazardous conditions at Randolph Mine just days after a small fire occurred there. The agency’s inspectors found that the mine operator was not providing adequate ventilation to reduce the risk of explosions and exposure to coal mine dust. Nine 104(d)(2) withdrawal orders were issued for the operator’s failure to provide adequate ventilation, not following the approved ventilation plan by mining depths in excess of the maximum 20 feet, inadequate on-shift examinations and extensive accumulation of loose coal. Inspectors found some sections without air movement caused by line curtains (used to control air flow) being rolled up.

But the release sure didn’t make it clear how frequently this mine has been cited for serious problems like improper ventilation and accumulations of coal dust. And there’s more … At least eight workers have been injured at the operation in the last year, and late last year, MSHA cited the company for 15 violations alleging improper accident and injury reporting.

MSHA records indicate that agency officials have launched two “preliminary special investigations” — possible precursors to criminal inquiries — in January and February of this year.

The Obama administration, through Joe Main, used the Randolph Mine situation to argue again that more mine safety legislation is needed, perhaps in anticipation of today’s House committee hearing on “Modernizing Mine Safety.”

But what about using all of the tools that are already in MSHA’s toolbox?

It doesn’t appear that, as of yet, any flagrant penalties have been assessed at this mine. MSHA didn’t include the operation in those receiving “pattern of violations” notices last month. And the next use by Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith (above) of her ability to seek a federal court injunction against a coal-mine operator is nowhere in sight.