Wednesday, October 08, 2003

GAO Finds MSHA Provides Lax Oversight of Mining Industry

The federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) has found serious problems with the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement program. The report “criticized it for not pursuing mine safety violations and for providing lax oversight of the industry.”
The GAO report comes as the rate of coal mining fatalities in the United States is rising. So far this year, 26 miners have been killed in accidents, compared with 27 for all of last year, which was a record low.

Kentucky and West Virginia lead the nation in coal mine fatalities with eight deaths each, according to MSHA statistics.
The investigation was conducted in response to a request by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) following the Quecreek Mine accident in Pennsylvania in which nine miners were trapped underground for three days. According to a summary in the Louisville Courier Journal, the report found that

  • Almost half of the mine safety violations cited by agency inspectors during the past decade weren't corrected by the required deadlines.

  • Some mines may be operating without adequate ventilation and roof support systems because MSHA doesn't provide adequate oversight.

  • Inspection procedures sometimes are unclear and enforced inconsistently and information on accidents is compiled but is not being used to improve safety.

  • Plans for new coal slurry ponds, called impoundments, are backlogged because the agency is short on engineers and is facing a personnel crisis.

  • Nearly half of its inspectors will be eligible to retire in the next five years, and the agency has no plan for dealing with that — a shortage that could hamper the government's ability to ensure the health and safety of miners, the report warned.
The GAO recommended that MSHA :

  • monitor the timeliness of technical inspections conducted
    as part of the 6-month review of certain mine plans,

  • ensure that mine operators are correcting hazards identified during inspections in a timely manner,

  • develop a plan for addressing anticipated shortages in the
    number of qualified inspectors due to upcoming retirements, and

  • revise the systems used to collect information on accidents and
Neither the United Mineworkers, nor Senator Kennedy were pleased by the findings of the report:
The report's findings drew sharp rebukes of MSHA from the nation's miners' union and from Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Tom Harkin of Iowa, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's labor subcommittee.

"It's a pretty tough report. It's a bad report card on" MSHA, said Joseph Main, administrator of the United Mine Workers of America's Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

Kennedy said the GAO study "makes clear the Department of Labor is failing to meet its responsibility."

"The current agency failures are an invitation to new disasters," the senator said in a statement. "The mine agency is being overwhelmed by its mission. It can't protect miners if it fails to inspect and monitor the nation's coal mines regularly and thoroughly."
MSHA, on the other hand was not convinced
A Mine Safety and Health Administration spokesman declined comment yesterday, pointing instead to the agency's Aug. 19 rebuttal by Dave D. Lauriski, assistant secretary of Labor for mine safety and health. The rebuttal, included in the back of the report and issued in response to an earlier GAO draft, critiqued everything from what it described as several "inaccuracies" to the report's title.