In 1977 Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, which gave the Department of Labors Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) the responsibility of ensuring the safety and health of mine workers. Under the provisions of the Mine Act, MSHA must inspect each underground coal mine four times a year. MSHA has the authority to cite mine operators for violations of the Mine Act, ensure that hazards are corrected expeditiously, restrict or close mines for serious violations, and investigate mine accidents. MSHA is also responsible for approving the plans of mine operators for ventilation and roof support systems.
Mine operators are required to file their initial ventilation and roof support plans with MSHA prior to operating a mine, and must submit revisions to MSHA for approval at least every six months. However, the GAO report determined that MSHA officials didnt monitor completion of required inspections of ventilation and roof support systems. As a result, the report ominously warned that some mines may have been operating without adequate ventilation or roof support plans. Inspections of a mines ventilation and roof support plans are critical for ensuring sufficient airflow and controlling the accumulation of dust particles in coal mines as well as ensuring that the roofs are properly supported.
MSHA is also responsible for approving plans for controlling and containing mine debris, known as impoundment. Failure of an impoundment can be extremely destructive, as communities can be flooded with sludge, affecting water supplies for decades. In 1972 an impoundment dam failure at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia killed 125 people and destroyed 500 homes. But according to the 2003 GAO report, there were various problems with MSHAs review of impoundments. The agency didnt have a method of quickly reviewing impoundment plans and didnt have the staffing needed to ensure timely and thorough review of the plans.
The report also acknowledged that MSHAs data on its required quarterly inspections of coal mines was woefully inadequate. MSHA officials didnt monitor their district offices to ensure that unsafe conditions identified during inspections were corrected. MSHA procedures require inspectors to follow up with mine operators within the deadline set or to extend the deadline.
But the GAO report demonstrated that for almost half of all citations in which a deadline was established inspectors failed to follow up in a timely manner to ensure that violations had been corrected. In fact, the more serious types of violations those classified as significant and substantial accounted for a large proportion of the citations in which inspectors didnt follow up by the required deadlines. In total, inspectors didnt follow up on over 48 percent of these violations by the deadline.
The GAO also uncovered that MSHA was not collecting data on injuries by contractor coal miners. As a result, the report indicated that MSHA couldnt accurately calculate fatality or nonfatal injury rates for miners. Consequently, MSHA couldnt identify trends in fatal or nonfatal injuries at individual mines in order to target its enforcement resources. The report noted that this was a significant oversight, because the number of contractor miners has been gradually increasing. In 1993, 13 percent were contractors, but by 2002 it had grown to 18 percent.
The failure of the Bush administration to correct significant problems at MSHA is the result of several factors. In one regard, its another example of the administrations tunnel vision with respect to the war in Iraq, in which it has largely ignored domestic issues. And its also partly due to the administrations pro-business policies, which places profits ahead of the health and well being of American workers. As a result, 16 miners have paid the ultimate price for the administrations indifference.