Report faults federal agency in deadly W.Va. mine accident

"It is clear the entire system failed these 29 miners, from Congress's failure to maintain adequate and experienced staffing at MSHA over the years, to the agency's failures to fully enforce the Mine Act, to the inherent weaknesses in that law, to a company hell-bent on exploiting all of those weaknesses," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee. "The primary responsibility for miners’ health and safety falls to the company that employs them. But when the company fails, the safety agency must step in."

Miller is the co-author of mine safety legislation that would hike the penalties for safety hazards; expand whistleblower protections to miners; empower federal investigators to close unsafe mines more easily; and grant regulators subpoena power when investigating mining accidents. It died in the House in December 2010, largely along party lines.

Republicans called on MSHA to beef up its enforcement after the report's release, but stopped short of saying the agency should be given more powers.

"Many have seen the horrifying images that depict the deadly conditions forced upon miners at Upper Big Branch," said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a member of the Education and Workforce panel. "Not only do these images illustrate a total disregard for worker safety, they also highlight a lack of proper enforcement. The internal review demonstrates the urgent need for an enforcement system that uses every tool to aggressively defend mine workers’ safety. I intend to take a careful look at the details of this report and keep a close eye on MSHA as it makes the necessary changes to strengthen enforcement." 

Tuesday's report places the blame squarely on the mine operator, Massey Energy, saying the company concealed mine safety violations by giving foremen advance notice of inspections; concealing several occupational injuries; and intimidating miners into not reporting hazards. 

"These intentional efforts to evade well-established Mine Act provisions, which are intended to provide MSHA the opportunity to determine operator compliance or designed to make available vital safety and health information, interfered with MSHA's ability to identify and require abatement of hazardous conditions at the Mine," the report concludes.

Miller, however, said the federal agency was no match for deceitful mine operators, and needs to be revamped.

"Unfortunately, in this case, MSHA's overwhelmed and inexperienced staff missed important enforcement opportunities even while citing the mine more than any other comparable mine, Miller said. "MSHA was no match for Massey’s masterful manipulation of the system, its obstruction of agency investigators and its intimidation of miners. When a company flouts the law like Massey did, MSHA must put the mine back on track or shut it down. Regrettably, that didn't happen."