Rockefeller: Labor Dept. mine safety computer glitch ‘unacceptable’

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Tuesday said that a computer error had kept a certain category of safety violations outside the consideration of whether the mine showed a “potential pattern of violations.”

Establishing that pattern gives regulators more authority to mandate corrective actions, including power to shut down mines. Solis said that had the computer screening program functioned right, Massey would likely have been informed that the mine would be added to the “potential pattern of violations” list last fall.

However, she said the mine reduced violations anyway.

Solis stated:

Upon notification of being in potential pattern of violation status, Massey Energy would have had a chance to request a meeting to correct any data errors. The mine then would have been given 90 days to reduce its 'significant and substantial' violations by 30 percent, or to reduce its level of 'significant and substantial violations' to below the industry average for mines of similar type and size.

From October through December 2009, the Upper Big Branch Mine dramatically reduced its level of 'significant and substantial' violations – by nearly 65 percent.  

As such, even if there had been no computer programming error, the mine would not have been in the pattern of violation status at the time of the explosion. This computer programming error did not have an impact on this tragedy.  It did, however, have an impact on the information that we provided to the public and the media.

Lawmakers including Rockefeller and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) – who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – are more broadly exploring reforms to mine safety laws.

In particular, they say that current law allows mining companies to use frequent administrative appeals of violations to ward off the “pattern of violations” finding. 

“The core responsibility for safety lies with the company but government inspections and safety enforcement must be rigorous, thorough and effective. We must take immediate action to ensure that miners are not being asked to enter unsafe conditions and I strongly agree with Secretary Solis that the larger issue of the pattern of violations process needs to be immediately fixed,” Rockefeller said Tuesday.