Coal Tattoo

Is keeping ‘two sets of books’ a problem?

MSHA officials — from left to right, Patricia Smith, Kevin Stricklin and Joe Main — await the start of a press conference Wednesday. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — with a little help from initial media reports like mine last night — have probably confused things a bit on this business about Massey Energy keeping “two sets of books” at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

So let’s see if we can sort this out and be real clear here.

First, they weren’t really keeping “two sets” of mine examination books. At least not two sets of, for example, “pre-shift examination” books. They didn’t have one pre-shift book that they recorded hazards in and other they didn’t. They didn’t show the clean one to MSHA and keep the “dirty” one secret from government inspectors.

The situation MSHA described during today’s briefing is just slightly more complex than that.  My buddy Howard Berkes over at NPR probably did a better job of explaining this than I did, so let’s take a look at what Howard reported early this morning:

Mine owner Massey Energy kept two sets of records that chronicled safety problems. One internal set of production reports detailed those problems and how they delayed coal production. But the other records, which are reviewed by federal mine safety inspectors and required by federal law, failed to mention the same safety hazards. Some of the hazards that were not disclosed are identical to those believed to have contributed to the explosion.

During today’s public briefing, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin offered three examples of instances where hazards identified on Massey’s internal and previously provide production reports were not listed on official mine examination reports that are regularly available to inspectors (not to mention used, at least supposedly, to warn miners of problems and ensure those problems are fixed).

Take a look at those examples, by turning to pages 39-41 of the slide presentation Kevin used during today’s briefing.

To offer just one instance, a production report for March 2, 2010, said the company spent 25 minutes “re-ventilating”  to get methane — recorded initially at 1.5 percent — down to 0.3 percent. The examination report for that same shift and part of the mine lists no hazards, and simply recorded methane at 0.3 percent.

The issue here, then, is this:  Were mine examinations at Upper Big Branch inadequate, so that hazards were not identified, recorded and fixed? Or perhaps were hazards ignored, and the records falsified? Falsifying the books is a felony, and the most serious criminal violation currently on the books under federal mine safety law.

One interesting thing here is that former Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s micromanaging is part of what led Massey mines to have much more detailed “production records,” than many other coal operations. So it’s possible that all of this detail about why production slowed or stopped at particular times might end up coming back to bite Massey … if federal prosecutors really dig into these records and find lots of inconsistencies.

On the other hand, keep in mind that the production records could and in at least some cases probably were, kept by someone different from the examination records. And information on them may have been recorded at different times, perhaps long after a pre-shift examination was completed, for example. So to prosecute anyone, federal officials are going to have a challenging road ahead on this stuff.

I asked U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin if his office was looking specifically at this issue, and he didn’t want to say … but he did add:

Our investigation is continuing into all matters related to the conditions at and affairs at Upper Big Branch.

Stay tuned …