Why inspectors might hesitate to shut down a mine

January 27, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter waits for the commencement of a town hall meeting Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in Wallace, Idaho where residents and business owners sought answers about the recent Lucky Friday Mine closure. (AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)

After 29 miners died in April 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine here in West Virginia, a lot of people — including the local political leadership — made a lot of noise asking why, if conditions were so bad at Upper Big Branch, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors didn’t shut the place down. Well, if you really wonder about the answer to that question, look no farther than what’s going on right now out in Idaho, where the local media and the governor are raising quite a stink over closure of the much-troubled Lucky Friday silver mine.

Here’s the latest news from The Associated Press:

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter plans to ask federal regulators to hold a town hall meeting in northern Idaho and further explain the decision to close one of the nation’s deepest underground mines for safety reasons.

Otter traveled Monday to Wallace to discuss the closure of the Lucky Friday Mine earlier this month and economic conditions in the depressed Silver Valley region, where dozens of workers recently received a pink slip.

There was standing room only as Otter held a public meeting Monday in Wallace to discuss the shutdown of the mine with local families and business owners. Otter said he would ask federal mine regulators to hold a public meeting in the Silver Valley to further explain their decision.

“When I get home, that letter will be on its way to Washington, D.C.,” said Otter, who has also met with Hecla representatives to discuss the closure.

What exactly is MSHA up to here?

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered the operation closed following an investigation prompted by a series of accidents that killed two miners over the last year. The agency ordered Hecla Mining Co. for safety reasons to scrub the walls of the mile-deep shaft that is the main entrance to the mine.

Federal inspectors determined that sand and concrete material that had leaked from a pipe into a mine shaft over the years needed to be removed. The material is in the mile-deep Silver Shaft, the mine’s main access shaft, and workers will spend the next year essentially power washing the material from the walls of the shaft.

The shaft problems were flagged during a Dec. 20 inspection following two fatal accidents and a rock burst that trapped seven miners.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s closure order was initially issued Jan. 5, but Hecla officials said Jan. 11 that they had been negotiating for several days with federal regulators before resigning themselves to the lengthy shutdown.

In this file photo from Thursday, April 28, 2011, Sol Sandberg, a miner at the Lucky Friday Mine, holds his son Jimmy, 19 months, as they leave the memorial service for Larry Marek at Kellogg High School in Kellogg, Idaho. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is investigating the mine after a series of accidents killed two miners past year. In mid-December, seven miners were injured in a rock burst at the mine. (AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos)

Only this week, MSHA had this to say about Lucky Friday after a blitz inspection at the operation:

MSHA conducted an impact inspection Dec. 16-23 at Hecla Limited’s Lucky Friday Mine in Shoshone County, Idaho. Inspectors issued 59 citations and 15 orders to Hecla Ltd. and 22 citations to Cementation USA Inc., an independent contractor.

Among the violations cited was a repeated failure to maintain established ground support systems throughout the mine. In addition, ground support fixtures in several areas had not been installed or torqued properly; shafts had not been systematically inspected, tested and maintained, and steel structures in the shaft were not kept clean of hazardous materials; multiple areas of the mine had not been provided with two separate escapeways; explosives magazines had not been constructed and located to protect miners from the risk of unintended explosions; underground shop doors were improperly constructed to ensure fire protection; elevated walkways in multiple areas were not provided with substantially constructed handrails; and travel areas were not kept clean and orderly, resulting in slip, trip and fall hazards.

Two miners died at Lucky Friday Mine in 2011. In December, seven miners were trapped underground when a roof fall occurred, three of whom required hospitalization.

Of course, it doesn’t help the situation here that apparently MSHA hadn’t previously done what you might call a stellar job at Lucky Friday, at least from what local public broadcasting has reported:

… Federal mining inspectors have found a lot of safety violations at the Lucky Friday Mine since the rockfall that killed Larry Marek. Two months after the accident MSHA inspectors found 70 health and safety violations. The month before, they found eight.

Celeste Monforton is a former MSHA policy adviser. She notes that in March, before the accident, two inspectors spent 46 hours at the Lucky Friday Mine during the routine inspection. After the accident in June, five inspectors spent more than 300 hours.

“And when I see something like that, one can’t help but wonder whether whether those deficiencies existed on the previous inspection and they just weren’t observed,” says Monforton.

When overlooking safety problems or going easy on companies in the name of jobs or “compliance assistance” becomes routine, it’s no wonder the workers and the local political leadership (not to mention most of the media) react this way when MSHA comes in and actually does its job. But it’s maddening that politicians don’t understand the connection between their constant fist-pounding about protecting the mining industry from regulators and safety inspectors hesitating to shut down a mine. That doesn’t stop those same politicians from pounding their fists on the table just as hard after miners die in a disaster.

So ask yourself: What would Sen. Joe Manchin or Rep. Nick Rahall have said on April 4, 2010, if MSHA had shut down Upper Big Branch?

8 Responses to “Why inspectors might hesitate to shut down a mine”

  1. Thumbs up Ken Ward for pointing out the hypocrisy.

  2. heather says:

    This is an incredibly important and timely connection to make – between UBB and Lucky Friday Mine. I think a print version of this blog should be handed directly to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter – photos and all. Thank-you, Mr. Ward.

  3. Bill Howley says:

    I am glad that you have made this point about the pressure that politicians put on MSHA to ignore problems in our nation’s mines. These elected officials are the ultimate bosses of every MSHA inspector. If these officials are constantly harping about running coal and constantly pressuring their MSHA employees to go easy on coal companies for the sake of “jobs,” then it is no wonder that individual employees are looking over their shoulders when they go underground.

    While I believe MSHA should be held accountable for their past failures, I think we need understand the pressures they are under from politicians. On Coal Tattoo over the past few years, I have seen separate criticisms of politicians and MSHA’s failures. I am glad to see in this post that you bring them together and make the connections between many of MSHA’s failures and political pressure from above.

    I have read all three reports on the UBB killings, and I was horrified at the MSHA district managers who apparently caved in to the thuggish behavior of Massey’s managers. MSHA inspectors lived with active and constant resistance from Massey management every single day, even after the killings and the rescue and recovery effort was implemented.

    Inspectors’ jobs are hard enough without Massey’s constant campaign to browbeat and cheat them at every turn. Add to that the constant pressure from their political bosses to soft peddle violations, and I marvel that they could get anything accomplished at all.

    We cannot let state and federal politicians off the hook. They are ultimately accountable for MSHA’s performance.

  4. BOUTTIME says:

    ….Jobs are replaceable — lives are NOT!

  5. Gene says:

    4,730 people killed under OSHA in 2009. Only 29 miners killed in the mining industry in 2009.

    Can you honestly say MSHA is not doing it’s job?

    In 1980, the average number of fatalities in the mining industry was 1,500 per year.

    2011 is the second best year with only 34 fatalities all year, compared to 4,500 fatalities reported to OSHA.

    Not to say OSHA isn’t doing a good job. In 1980, there were more than 10,000 reportable fatalities to OSHA and that number has decreased by 60%.

    However, since the implementation of MSHA, mining fatalities have decreased by 95%. I highly doubt there is any other federal agency which can claim the record success of MSHA since it’s inception when consuming such a small percentage of the federal budget ($352 million, offset by $153 million collected in fines. For a grand total net operating budget of $200 million per year).

    Now let’s talk about fatalities under the US DOT. 53,000 people die in car crashes every year, including 8,500 truck drivers. Additionally, 375,000 people receive permanent injuries via highway crashes.

    Still think 34 fatalities is “too many” and “MSHA not doing it’s job?”

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Gene,

    The problem with what you’re arguing is that it’s the politicians themselves who constantly tell us that even one miner killed on the job is too many … Gov. Tomblin said it in his State of the State address a few weeks ago, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2012/01/11/one-death-in-our-mines-is-one-death-too-many/

    “Coal mining is a dangerous profession, but we can make it safer. One death in our mines is one death too many.”

    That’s easy to say … what counts is whether political leaders back it up. And when they constantly pound their fists on the table about jobs, it makes inspectors and regulatory agencies hesitate to do their jobs completely, to the point that no one is killed in an accident that can be prevented.

    The issue isn’t whether MSHA has improved things — it’s whether the agency is allowed to do everything it can to ensure that every single coal miner comes home at the end of every single shift.

    If political leaders think that there is an “acceptable” number of mining deaths, then that’s what they ought to say — and they should spell out that number, and tell the families of those killed that their loved ones’ deaths were part of the acceptable costs of doing business.

    Ken.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bill,

    I’ve written about this before, but perhaps not as clearly as I meant to.

    For example, http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2012/01/12/the-cognitive-dissonance-of-coal-politics-in-w-va/

    But if you listen to speeches like the Gov. Tomblin gave last night, can you really wonder why mines like Upper Big Branch — a place independent investigator Davitt McAteer described as a disaster waiting to happen — don’t get shut down by state or federal government inspectors. It’s become assumed that anyone who wants to get anywhere in West Virginia politics has to immediately condemn any sort of regulatory action that might in any way interfere with the continued flow of coal production. Given the “war on coal” rhetoric, how is some overworked and underpaid state inspector expected to stand up and say a mine needs to be closed?

    Ken.

  8. Concerned says:

    First, it is somewhat unfair to compare OSHA to MSHA. In OSHA’s defense, they regulate health and safety in general industry (which includes almost everything else but mining) the way MSHA does for mining. The diversity and size of the mining industry pales in comparison to general industry.

    As for MSHA, it is faced with a number of issues, starting with a lack of adequate resources (people, infrastructure, regulations, information, etc). The agency needs more inspectors and technical specialists (e.g., scientists and engineers, including in leadership positions), more laboratory capability, updated regulations (many regs on the coal side, for example, date back to the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act and are grossly in need of updating, especially in light of new mining technologies).

    Furthermore, health and safety regulations revolve around science and technology; in turn, science and technology are closely married to scientific research and development. For mine safety, the elimination of the Bureau of Mines and relocation of those functions to NIOSH in 1995 began the long road to creating a bureaucratic grand canyon between those who traditionally developed the science and technology needed to write effective regulations and those who are faced with enforcing them. To make matters worse, budgetary infighting and cowardice within all parts of the federal government are now threatening to eliminate the NIOSH mine safety research effort completely.

    Anyone concerned about the safety of miners needs to start speaking up in numbers and demand accountability not just from regulators, but also from legislators and the industry.

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