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Investigators Probe Mine Disaster in West Virginia

April 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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More than a week after an explosion killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia, officials continue to investigate the cause of the disaster and the emergency response. Gwen Ifill talks to reporter Ed O'Keefe of the Washington Post for the latest on the mine safety debate.

GWEN IFILL: The explosion that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine earlier this month was the nation’s worst mine accident in decades.

Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to receive a preliminary report on the causes of the tragedy. Ahead of that this afternoon, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin and other officials discussed the multiple strands of ongoing investigation into the disaster.

Ron Wooten, who runs the state’s mine safety department, said that could take months.

RON WOOTEN, director, West Virginia Office of Miners Health Safety and Training: We don’t know what happened. We’re going to work hard to try to find out precisely what happened. In my 40 years in this industry, this is — this is the biggest thing I have seen. So, we have got to find out. And it’s going to take a while.

GWEN IFILL: The Upper Branch Mine has amassed more than 1,300 violations since 2005, but it remained open. New attention is now focusing on the role of government mine safety watchdogs.

Covering that part of the story is Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post. He joins us now.

Ed, count it up for us. How many separate investigations are now going on into this latest disaster?

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Well, we have the West Virginia investigation. There will be an investigation by the company, Massey Energy. There will be several congressional investigations, probably at least one in the House, maybe the Senate.

And then, of course, you have the investigation at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency that is supposed to be overseeing the safety at the — at the nation’s coal mines. But, of course, there’s been a lot of criticism of the fact that the agency itself is essentially not only investigating the incident, but investigating its own workers.

This has been a concern of mine safety experts, other observers and lawmakers for quite some time, that the agency doesn’t really have an effective independent investigator, an inspector general in place, perhaps, to step in and independently look at a situation.

The concern is that you might have employees or colleagues not as willing to point the finger, at least as sharply as they would if they weren’t actually employed by the agency and looking into their own colleagues.

GWEN IFILL: Ed, the questions never change, which is, what should the national Mine Safety and Health Administration have known about this, and what didn’t they know?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, that — that’s going to be remain a big component of this. It does appear that — that this mine had a pretty significant record of safety violations, and that the agency was aware of them.

The concern is that those concerns weren’t necessarily elevated to the level where there was even more scrutiny put upon the company. And remember that this agency has never shut down a mine in this country for safety violations. It — it has the ability to do so in a very sort of narrow scope that it looks like Massey Energy either would have fit or was very close to fitting.

But, despite that, it was not a place that was shut down ever out of concern. There were a lot of investigations or inspections going on. Inspectors were there pretty regularly. And as we have reported, as others have reported, you know, this is a place that had several different violations over a course of time.

But there really was no concerted effort to really close this place down or take a harder look. Part of the reason, talking to mine safety experts and agency officials, is that it just simply doesn’t have the resources. There aren’t enough people. There isn’t enough money. There is not necessarily the political will, not only of the agency, but of the Labor Department, which oversees it.

GWEN IFILL: And — and, also, Ed, they’re allowed to appeal each one of these violations and basically kick the can down the road.

ED O’KEEFE: Absolutely. And that is an emerging concern and something that really grew out of the 2006 reforms put in place after the Sago disaster, that a company’s penalties will basically increase depending on the number of violations there are.

So, there’s almost a financial incentive, observers and lawmakers and others have said, to continue kicking the can down the road, because, if you prolong the penalty process and don’t get those violations added to your final record, the violation price tag stays lower.

That is a loophole you better believe lawmakers are going to look into in the coming months as part of the reforms to try to find a way to break that.

GWEN IFILL: In fact…

ED O’KEEFE: On top of that, you have a commission that is looking into all this and is seriously logjammed, doesn’t have enough people to review all the appeals.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, one of those lawmakers looking into this is Congressman George Miller, who said this afternoon there are at least 48 other mines which maybe come in for additional scrutiny because of these delays in assessing these violations and these penalties.

ED O’KEEFE: Yes, it’s a pretty brash move by Miller, who has been part of the reform efforts in the past.

There was an effort in 2007 and 2008 to get some additional reforms tacked onto the 2006 measure, following the Sago disaster, and Miller was someone pushing for those. He is — is said to be quite upset by all of this and — and was — part of the motivation behind releasing this list is to sort of demonstrate that there are customers out there, in his words, gaming the system that would otherwise be under closer scrutiny if they were not able to do that.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the Sago Mine disaster in 2006. Twelve miners were killed in that one. What has changed substantially in — in safety violations, or in prosecutions, or in scrutiny, watchdogging, since then?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, that — that — following that disaster, there was a series of reforms put in place that essentially gave MSHA, the Mine Safety Health Administration, more inspectors, it stiffened the penalties, and it required them to inspect more frequently.

So, since then, you have seen the number of violations, the number of citations rise. And you saw a pretty healthy uptick in the number of people on the agency’s payrolls. But, with that, as we said, came that backlog, that ability of the companies to sort of tie up the process and appeal things for as long as two years, if not more, and avoid paying these penalties, to the tune of millions of dollars, and potentially the safety of their workers.

So, that’s the big loophole that was left out there that is inevitably going to be part of whatever kind of legislation moves this time. It’s a sad reality, not only in the case of this regulatory agency, but in so many others here in Washington, that they really are in a reactive state of mind, that, when something happens, only then do they get the money and the congressional attention that they have probably needed for quite some time.


ED O’KEEFE: Several people have said to me, you know, the blood of those that died in that mine is going to be on the legislation that is inevitably passed, because that’s simply the way this process has always worked.

GWEN IFILL: Which means — it seems harsh, but it seems like people have to die in order for investigations to happen.

We heard that the West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin, today said there will be investigations of all of the underground mines now in West Virginia.

ED O’KEEFE: That’s right. And, by my count, there’s more than 290 underground mines in the state. He wants the highest-risk ones to go first. That could take about two weeks.

It’s very difficult to know how much longer it would take after that to take a look at all the others. That doesn’t mean they are going to suspend operations and put those tens of thousands of mine workers out of work in the meantime, but there will be much closer investigations of all of them.

He did something similar after the 2006 Sago disaster, and he’s known to have a pretty aggressive stance when it comes to mine safety. So, this move doesn’t surprise anyone who has been following this at all.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, briefly, tomorrow, the president gets this report. What do we expect that report to be?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, it essentially is going to be a preliminary review of what the agency knows, much of which we have already heard, that it appears that there may have been some mistakes made in tracking the situation at Massey.

Inevitably — not clear if it will happen tomorrow — the White House will probably tie itself to the reform efforts on Capitol Hill. It should be noted that President Obama was actually a supporter of those additional efforts back in 2007, when he was a senator. He and then-Senator Clinton were joining Senator Kennedy at the time to try to get them out of the Senate — it never happened — because Illinois is a big mining state as well.

So, he has some history with this, and, obviously, the White House expected to throw some concern at it and — and try to get something done.

GWEN IFILL: Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

ED O’KEEFE: Any time. Take care.