published Friday, July 1st, 2011

The cost of lax regulation

The latest federal investigative report on the deadliest mine explosion in America in 40 years — a blast at a Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 men — has revealed that the mine’s overseers kept two sets of books on the mine’s operations. One was a clean set that failed to show state and federal safety officials the true record of the mine’s safety issues, as the law requires. The other set detailed hazardous conditions at the mine and what efforts were made to remedy them, but was kept hidden from safety inspectors.

If the books that detailed the mine’s safety problems had been shown to safety regulators as the law required, the explosion that killed the 29 miners who worked in the Upper Big Branch mine might have been avoided.

Discovery of the dual bookkeeping, disclosed this week by Keven Stricklin, administrator of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is a milestone in a yearlong investigation that has included interviews of 266 people, analysis of 84,000 pages of documents and thorough examinations of the mine.

That investigation, Stricklin said, has also ruled out the mine owners’ contention that an event beyond their control — a huge infusion of gas — set off the deadly blast in April last year. Instead, investigators say they have concluded that a large amount of coal dust was allowed to accumulate, which set the stage for a small ignition of methane to ignite a huge blast throughout the mine.

Whether new criminal charges will result from the latest findings remains to be determined, but prior and current MSHA findings suggest that neglect of safety issues at the Massey Energy mine was systemic and part of a long pattern.

Officials had previously said that the explosion was “entirely preventable.” The latest report, disclosed in a public hearing on Wednesday, appears to confirm that basic safety practices were neglected and that the mine was operated under a culture of impunity both to safety standards and to respect for a regime of inspections.

That’s an understatement. The mine had received more orders to shut down operations in areas of the mine found to be unsafe than any other coal mine in the United States. Its reputation and record had led to a number of surprise inspections. But even with its dismal safety record, the MSHA leadership had resisted issuing an order to shut down the entire mine.

In the context of current findings, it seems clear that, before the explosion, MSHA administrators had become cowed by the political clout of Massey’s former chief executive, Don Blankenship, and were overly tentative and cautious about taking regulatory enforcement actions that would inflame political jousting over regulatory burdens.

Employees of the mine seem to have been equally cowed by the owners. Not only did they fail to list or report safety violations before the explosion; there was just one call made to the MSHA’s anonymous safety hot line in the years before the explosion.

Part of the problem, to be sure, was that the MSHA leadership had been neutered by the prior Bush administration in response to business and political demands to loosen mining regulation. The death toll from the Massey mine explosion, and the impunity to safety procedures that resulted, now stands as a haunting rebuke to such political interference in regulatory matters where workers’ lives are on the line.



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