MSHA’s Joe Main refuses to answer questions about mine rescue effort at Upper Big Branch

May 9, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

We were told earlier today that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration was insisting that all questions about the controversial mine rescue effort at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine would have to be submitted in writing (see here, here, here and here)

… As it turns out, even submitting questions in writing isn’t going to get any answers out of MSHA chief Joe Main:

MSHA released the first round of transcripts to fulfill a promise to the families of the 29 victims, as soon as practicable after we were authorized to do so. We will continue to release transcripts when they are releasable, based on the progress of our investigation and an agreement we have with the Department of Justice. A number of questions pertaining to specific aspects of the rescue and recovery are difficult to answer at this time, primarily because we are still in the midst of an ongoing accident investigation, as is the internal review team. The Mine Act requires that MSHA conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident; it does not require us to publicly release information such as witness interview transcripts. Prior to the Sago Mine disaster, MSHA generally did not release information pertaining to fatalities until a final report was issued.

Ellen Smith at Mine Safety and Health News might take issue with that last sentence … as Ellen wrote in The Washington Post following the Sago Mine Disaster:

In previous years, the agency released factual records as they became available. It did so after the 1984 Wilberg mine fire in Utah, the 1989 Pyro mine explosion in Kentucky, the 1992 Southmountain mine explosion in Virginia, the 1993 Magma Copper mine accident in Arizona and the 1999 Kaiser Aluminum plant explosion in Louisiana. It released some information from the early phases of its investigation into a coal mine impoundment failure in Kentucky’s Martin County in 2000.

The first time MSHA declined to release miner witness interviews was after the Sept. 24, 2001, explosion at a Jim Walters Resources mine in Alabama, which killed 13 miners — a mine tragedy overshadowed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At that time, perhaps the media did not understand the change in MSHA’s policy or what it would mean.

There’s also the language in the Mine Act that contradicts what Joe Main is saying here:

All records, information, reports, findings, citations, notices, orders, or decisions required or issued pursuant to or under this Act may be published from time to time, may be released to any interested person, and shall be made available for public inspection.

Further, there’s a troublesome little law that applies to MSHA called “The Freedom of Information Act,” which in fact does require MSHA to make documents such as these interviews available to the public — unless the agency can make a strong showing that releasing a specific document would harm their ongoing investigation.

You have to wonder why it is that MSHA can release some of the mine rescue interview transcripts, but not release others, such as former District Manager Bob Hardman, who overruled his own agency’s rescue experts in violation of long-standing mine rescue protocols.

And, of course, way back when he worked for the United Mine Workers of American union, Joe Main thought mine disaster investigations were too secretive and should be done through open, public hearings.

For the record, here are the questions I hoped that Joe Main would answer:

1. Why did Bob Hardman overrule his own agency’s mine rescue team members — and longstanding mine rescue protocol — and go along with Chris Adkins’ plan to have rescue teams continue underground, inby the fresh-air base, without having backup teams ready at the fresh-air base?

2. What experience did Mr. Hardman have in mine rescue? Did he ever serve on a team or lead another rescue? What training did he have in mine rescue?

3. Why did MSHA not release the portions of Bob Hardman and Kevin Stricklin’s transcripts where they were questioned about the mine rescue operation?

4. Jerry Cook, an MSHA mine rescue team member, told investigators, speaking of the lack of backup teams:

“They could’ve . they could’ve killed every one of us. At that time, we were expendable that night, that’s my opinion. They didn’t care what they did with us.”

What is MSHA’s response to this?

5. Why did MSHA dump this information on the families — with some of it very difficult to read — on Mother’s Day weekend? Wasn’t that terribly insensitive to the families? Does the agency plan to apologize for its timing?

6. Why were Jerry Cook and Mike Hicks not allowed to continue working on the underground mine rescue operation after they expressed concerns about the violation of protocols?

7. Why didn’t MSHA have someone in the command center with expertise in the mine rescue protocols who could have advised Bob Hardman more effectively about those protocols?

8. Why were rescue team members from other companies — including CONSOL and ICG — not interviewed as part of this investigation? What is MSHA’s response to the refusal of CONSOL rescue teams to go underground at UBB because of the continued protocol violations?

9. Specifically what steps has MSHA taken so far to perform the overall examination of the mine rescue system that Joe Main promised prior to UBB would be done? Have any meetings been held with rescue team members or coal miners? What is the timeline for completing this review?

10. MSHA rescue team member Fred Martin testified that political pressure forced rescuers back into the mine late in the week at UBB, putting their lives in danger at a time when it was believed there were no survivors. Why would MSHA allow politics to play a role in such decisions during a rescue operation?

One Response to “MSHA’s Joe Main refuses to answer questions about mine rescue effort at Upper Big Branch”

  1. Rob says:

    The answers to your question No. 3 above will, in time, clear up this matter.

    It’s highly unlikely that Mr. Hardman made any independent decisions at UBB aside from the amount of sugar in his coffee, given MSHA’s ingrained, almost militaristic chain-of-command protocols. I believe he was acting on orders given from his boss, Kevin Stricklin. And Stricklin do doubt had also brought Mr. Main into the mix.

    At Jim Walter, they rushed in and killed rescuers. At Sago, they delayed going in and survivors died. Wanting to avoid the criticisms levied following Sago, they, for some unknown reason went back to ‘rush mode’ at UBB.

    But the real story is not ‘who said what’ and ‘when did they say it.’ The real story is, or should be stripping MSHA of their investigative role following major events such as this. They do a wonderful job investigating individual fatalities, primarily because they have had no hand in their cause.

    I, for one, am not optimistic that we’ll learn anything more than what we already know. They needed more air and less combustibles.

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