Report: Mine scrutiny lacking

Inspections weren't performed at about 1 in 7 U.S. sites

November 18, 2007|By New York Times News Service

Government investigators have found that the Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to conduct required inspections last year at 107 of the nation's 731 underground coal mines.

In a report released Friday night, the Labor Department inspector general also found "significant inspection and supervisory deficiencies" in the agency's inspections of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, where six miners and three rescuers died in August.

The inspector general also concluded that the agency had misstated the number of inspections it conducted, apparently to inflate its rate of completed inspections.

The report depicted an agency that had failed to devote enough resources to inspections at a time of increasing mining activity and that "did not place adequate emphasis on ensuring the inspections were completed."

The inspector general, Elliot P. Lewis, said that about 7,500 miners were employed at the 107 mines that had not received the required inspections. The report also said that inspectors had often failed to document many activities that they were supposed to conduct, such as taking samples of coal dust or checking high-voltage circuits.

In his response to the report, Richard E. Stickler, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of the mine safety agency, said 70 percent of the incomplete inspections were at mines that were nonproducing, inactive, intermittent or abandoned.

The inspector general said that was a misleading assertion, however, and insisted that all of the 107 mines where required inspections had not been completed were active.

As one reason for the failure to do all the required inspections, the report noted that the number of agency inspectors had fallen to 496 in 2006 from 605 in 2002, an 18 percent drop, while the amount of underground mining had risen by 9 percent.

Stickler said the agency was faced with how best to use its limited resources. "Enforcement time should be placed primarily on identifying and abating hazards rather than documentation and paperwork," he said.

The report noted that the agency's inspection budget had not kept up with expenses, rising by $1.1 million while its mandated cost-of-living salary increases rose by $6.1 million, to $84.9 million.

The inspector general also noted that agency internal reviews found problems in inspections at three other mines where there had been fatal mining accidents. In the Sago Mine in West Virginia, 12 miners died in January 2006; in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, also in West Virginia, two miners died that same month; and in the Darby Mine in Kentucky, five miners died in May 2006.

The report said 147 required inspections had not been completed at the 107 mines. It found that southern West Virginia had the worst situation, with 85 of 165 mines not having had one or more required inspections.

And it found that though the agency had completed the seven required inspections at Crandall Canyon in 2006 and 2007, there were significant deficiencies in three of the inspections.

The inspector general noted that on 51 occasions in southern West Virginia, inspections were started and then canceled, but nonetheless counted as complete. The report cited another 22 incidents in which inspectors had visited inactive mines and counted inspections as completed.

David James, a Labor Department spokesman, said the agency had adopted a "100 Percent Plan" to ensure that it completes all statutorily required inspections by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Stickler said the agency had hired more than 273 new enforcement personnel since July 2006 and 257 more trainees.

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