Coal Tattoo

Can miners afford for MSHA to miss inspections?

Obama Mine Explosion

The weekend news that three U.S. coal miners died in as many days — one each in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming — brought a strong response from federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main:

Three miners killed on three consecutive days is extremely troubling.  The fact that that this occurred over the weekend, when there may be a greater expectation an MSHA inspector would not be present, is a red flag.

But with more than half of his agency’s staff furloughed during the Republican government shutdown, there isn’t necessarily much Joe Main can do. In the Labor Department release issued yesterday, government officials were reduced to issuing a plea that mine operators work harder to comply with safety and health regulations:

Following three coal mine fatalities during Oct. 4-6, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration is urging the mining industry to step up its compliance with safety and health regulations under the Mine Safety and Health Act and other applicable laws.

At the same time, some folks in the media and elsewhere are questioning what the government shutdown has to with these latest three coal-mining deaths. Even the usually insightful Dave Jamieson at Huffington Post fell for that, making a point to put this high up in his story yesterday:

There’s no indication that the shutdown prevented inspections at any of the mines. In fact, a Labor Department spokesperson told HuffPost that investigators had been in two of the three mines just prior to the accidents, since the companies were already on targeted inspection lists.

Updated: In a new story, the Wall Street Journal’s Kris Maher spends quite a lot of time letting mining industry officials downplay the potential impacts of the insist that the government shutdown has nothing to do with on safety at their operations and on MSHA’s presence at their mines:

Industry officials said it wasn’t clear whether the shutdown has affected safety of the nation’s mines. “It’s very hard, absent any data, for us to determine what if any impact their staff reductions have had on safety,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. He said companies haven’t reduced staff assigned to mine safety.

Several coal companies said that MSHA inspectors were still a regular presence at mines. “Federal and state inspectors continue to appear at our mining operations despite the government shutdown,” said Kim Link, a spokeswoman for Arch Coal Inc., the nation’s No. 2 coal company by production.

Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources Inc., said 53 MSHA inspections took place at the company’s mines on Oct. 2, the second day of the shutdown. “It doesn’t matter if it’s government business-as-usual or government shutting down. We intend to run right and run as safely as we can,” he said.

Unfortunately, Kris doesn’t explain to his readers that this sort of “targeted inspections” program is something that the mining industry has been arguing in favor of for many years (see below).

Whether or not MSHA inspectors were at these mines just prior to the accidents — or whether any missed inspection time meant hazards that led to these deaths weren’t caught and corrected — really misses the point.  Coal mining is dangerous business. There are a lot of ways to get yourself killed in a coal mine, and a lot of ways that mine operators can skimp on safety and health protections.

Congress was concerned enough about these dangers that it set mining apart from other workplaces, and actually mandated periodic inspections of four times a year for underground mines and twice a year for surface mines.  Other dangerous industries — whether oil and gas drilling, timbering, or construction — don’t have this mandate. Workers in those industries can go years without ever seeing an inspector from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It’s true the MSHA and the Obama administration have tried hard to ensure that the agency’s furloughs did as little damage as possible to MSHA field inspection staffing levels. But it’s just as true that MSHA has moved from conducting its required inspections to performing “targeted inspections” from a so-far undisclosed list of high-hazard mines.  No one has told the public how many of these targeted inspections MSHA is making. When I asked a Labor Department spokesman this question yesterday, this is what I was told:

I’m not sure they can do the fours and twos during a lapse in appropriations. We’ll have to see what’s doable.

Over the years, MSHA has had enough problems making its “twos and fours”, and has only recently began to build back up an inspection force that saw huge staffing and budget cuts that paved the way for a series of mining disasters, from Sago, Aracoma and Kentucky Darby, to Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. And we’ve learned from repeated reports published only after mining disasters (see here, here and here) what can happen when MSHA isn’t on top of things in the nation’s mines.

It’s worth noting that around the time of the last government shutdown in 1995-96, the Republicans were pushing legislation that basically would have eliminated MSHA, folding mine safety enforcement into OSHA, and done away with the mandate for quarterly inspections of all underground coal mines. Under the Clinton administration, the need to fight off these proposals was one of the reasons not nearly as much was accomplished as might have been under Davitt McAteer’s time at MSHA.

Industry lobbyists love these ideas. The National Mining Association pushed its proposals that MSHA switch to a program of “focused inspections” after both the Sago and the Upper Big Branch mine disasters (see here and here).

We may not know yet exactly why and how these three coal miners — Roger R. King, Robert Smith, Chris Stassinos — died, and whether the government shutdown was one of the causes. But given what we do know about the dangers of the mining industry, the history of the industry’s refusal to comply with safety rules, and MSHA’s own weaknesses even when it’s at full staffing, can our nation’s coal miners really afford for more safety inspections to be missed?