“That mine scared me to death,” is the headline for the Charleston Gazette‘s story by stellar reporter Ken Ward.  He relays the experience of MSHA inspector, Minness Justice, who was responsible for inspecting A.T. Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in the three month’s preceding the coal mine fire on January 19, 2006, which killed miners Don Bragg, 33 and Ellery Hatfield, 46.  The inspector admits he didn’t see a missing ventilation wall which likely would have prevented some of the smoke from the conveyor belt fire from penetrating into the miners’ escapeway.  Ward’s interview reveals in troubling prose the challenges faced by mine inspectors:

“‘There are maybe 13,000 stopppings in this coal mine,’ Justice said, ‘We don’t touch every stopping in the mine.’”

The inspector said “…he inspected the area by looking down the tunnel to see if all the stoppings were in place.  What he thought was a stopping turned out to be a plastic ventilation curtain.  ‘I’m sorry.  I didn’t see it.’ …’We had two people die.  One of them was a friend of mine.’”

Ken Ward’s story also sheds some light on changes in MSHA’s enforcement philosophy after the G.W. Bush Administration took office in January 2001.  The agency’s budget was being cut and MSHA’s senior officials had to figure out a way to deal with it.

“[MSHA] experts in various mine safety fields–ventilation, roof control and electrical–were shifted back to doing regular quarterly inspections to make sure the work was done.”  [Under the federal Mine Act, all underground mines must be inspected by MSHA four times per year.]  “Justice says this caused two problems.  First, some of the specialists had not done regular inspections in years.  MSHA did not give them retraining before sending them out in the field.  Second, the staff shift left the district offices without enough specialists.  Detailed inspections of electrical systems or reviews of mine ventilation plans weren’t getting done.  Justice believes these changes came back to haunt MSHA at the Aracoma mine, where major ventilation problems went undetected and then remained uncorrected.”

The inspector’s revelation that there were thousands of stoppings and ventilation controls (curtains) in the mine and he could not possibly examine each one, should be a reminder of the appropriate role of a government workplace innspector.  

It is not MSHA’s or OSHA’s duty to make sure that on each-and-every shift a mine or factory is operating safely.  That legal responsibility falls on the employer.  Four times a year, MSHA inspectors serve as an additional set of eyes for the miners to help identify uncorrected hazards, but no mine operator should view federal or state inspectors as their own private safety and health staff.  If an operator can’t figure out a way to harness the experience and skill of his own miners to ensure the mine is safe (or worse, refuses to engage his employees in meaningful involvement in workplace safety and health decisions) then, that employer needs to spend the resources to bring in that expertise.  Otherwise, that employer doesn’t belong in business.

Read the complete article to hear the inspector recount his first day inspecting the mine (with phrases like: “That mine was all to hell….I walked into a freakin’ mess”); the status of special investigations by the Inspector General and US Attorney, and MSHA’s internal review of its past enforcement performance at the mine; and the emotional toll on Minness Justice as he deals with allegations of incompetence, infidelity and worse.

“I sympathize with the families of those two men who committed suicide after Sago, because I was right at the verge of that myself, Justice said.”   

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