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Mine Agency Audits Reveal Regulatory Failures

There's an old axiom in Washington: If you've got bad news, release it at 5 p.m. on Friday.

That's what the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) did Friday, with the release of 57 internal audits of field offices that were hidden from the public for as long as three years.

One audit reveals an unexplained conflict of interest while others detail incomplete inspections, insufficient supervision and training of mine inspectors, and meek enforcement at mines with habitual safety violations.

"We take these findings seriously and are implementing new training, and revising policies and procedures to ensure that common problems that have been identified do not crop up again and again," said Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main in a news release issued with the audits.

The MSHA statement blamed some of the problems on "widespread attrition that resulted in many field office supervisors having five or fewer years with the agency."

The district offices are identified in the audits but the documents are so heavily redacted that it's not possible to identify any of the mines, mining companies, specific safety violations or MSHA personnel referred to in the documents.

None of the audits involved the MSHA district office that oversees Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 mine workers died in a massive explosion last year.

The existence of the audits, which took place from 2008 through 2010, was revealed last month in a story in the Charleston Gazette by veteran coal industry reporter Ken Ward.

Ward obtained a summary of the audits that had been delivered to Congress just before the Upper Big Branch disaster. The summary itself was not released until Ward's story last month.

Ward, NPR and congressional Republicans had pressured MSHA to release the complete audit documents.

In his story on the release, Ward notes that the audits "mirror conclusions of numerous MSHA internal reviews conducted after major mining disasters over the past 20 years, as well as repeated criticism from the Labor Department Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office."

"These audits are very troubling in that they point out enforcement problems in many of the local offices and suggest systemic problems," says Ed Clair, who was MSHA's chief lawyer until his retirement in 2009.

"The good news," Clair adds, "is that better training, retraining and monitoring systems are likely to be the result."

The Upper Big Branch tragedy has prompted multiple criminal and civil investigations, including an internal review of MSHA's enforcement before the explosion. But there are no release dates yet for any final investigative reports.

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