Coal Tattoo

Is MSHA partly to blame for UBB deaths?

At the end of yesterday’s MSHA press conference, a local radio reporter asked a pretty darned good question. It went something like this: Is Massey 100 percent responsible for the 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine? Or is MSHA also to blame, at least in part?

Put in a practically impossible situation by that question, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said:

I don’t know if MSHA plays a part, but there are certainly things we could have done better. I’m sure everybody wishes that they had done something different to keep this from occurring.

Interestingly, Kevin cited one example, saying he wished that an MSHA inspector who was in a different part of the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010, would have instead visited the mine’s longwall machine — where a mix of problems was just waiting to become the disaster. Kevin said:

If he had gone to the longwall I think we would have shut the mine down.

I can only imagine the way living with such life-and-death decisions must wear on longtime MSHA staffers like Kevin Stricklin, who I’m sure wants nothing more than to never, ever, have to investigate another coal-mining disaster.

At the same time, protecting the health, safety — the very lives — of our nation’s miners is their job. They know that going in. And after a disaster, part of their job is facing up to whatever agency shortcomings played a role, and of course taking action to try to fix those problems.

So, it’s telling that MSHA’s formal presentation Tuesday night for the families and Wednesday morning for the public and press contained no mention of any of the findings so far from the agency’s “internal review” of MSHA actions prior to the disaster.

I was reminded of the neat move that the Bush administration pulled four years ago (almost to the day), by releasing internal reviews for three disasters — Sago, Aracoma and Kentucky Darby — all on the same day. It was a nice way to take one bad press hit instead of three.

At the same time, take a look at the words then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler used in describing what those internal reviews found:

MSHA’s internal review teams identified a number of deficiencies in our enforcement programs, which I found deeply disturbing.

My old buddy Richard Stickler went even further in a memo issued to all MSHA employees about those internal review findings:

These three reviews show an unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight that will not be tolerated.

The internal review reports should make it clear to everyone that there were significant shortcomings in the way MSHA discharged its responsibilities at the three mines where these tragic accidents occurred.

We don’t know yet what the final findings of the internal review will show in this instance, and MSHA certainly isn’t going out of its way to be transparent about how that internal review works, what is being looked at, or what findings have been made thus far. If Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is serious about the transparency of her agency’s UBB investigations, she could start by immediately ordering the internal review team to have its own family and media briefings on a regular basis — without Joe Main or Kevin Stricklin in the room. Or she could at least instruct the internal review team to start answering media questions, without any involvement from the MSHA public affairs apparatus that reports to the Labor Department’s political operatives.

At yesterday’s press conference, when pressed by NPR’s Howard Berkes and by me, MSHA officials did explain a few things that are being looked at by the internal review. And there are indications otherwise of the sorts of problems that review will undoubtedly have to report about:

— MSHA officials clearly took absolutely no action to force Massey Energy to implement the recommendations for avoiding repeats of the methane problems that occurred at Upper Big Branch in 2003 and 2004.

— When Massey returned the longwall machine to Upper Big Branch from another mine the fall before the disaster, MSHA approved a plan that allowed less air flow to the mine face than had previously been used at UBB.

— Not only that, but MSHA really did little to force Massey to do a more thorough and long-range mine ventilation plan, instead of what agency officials now describe as an “ad hoc” approach to engineering key safety systems at Upper Big Branch. Things got so bad that MSHA’s top ventilation person in the region was reduced to practically begging a Massey executive to allow his former boss — who took a job with the company — to come and help fix the repeated ventilation problems.

— MSHA now makes a big deal about how agency officials believe the widespread use of ventilation doors at Upper Big Branch was unsafe — but MSHA approved their use, and if the agency believes their unsafe, why doesn’t it try to amend federal ventilation standards to outlaw them?

It’s easy, of course, to pick on MSHA over these things now. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that the Obama administration has used at least begun to use mine safety tools that have been on the books for years, but were never used by any administration.

But you have to wonder about the strategy of trying to downplay the agency’s shortcomings. We have yet to hear MSHA chief Joe Main make as strong a statement as Richard Stickler did about his agency’s mistakes. After the press conference, I asked Joe about MSHA’s failings at Upper Big Branch, trying to give him another chance to speak his mind about them. Here’s what he told me:

Every internal review you’re going to find that the agency was not perfect. I don’t think you’re ever going to find that the agency was perfect.

Nobody should expect a perfect report card. It’s never happened.