By Ken Ward, Jr.
April 5, 2017 - Seven years after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, federal regulators are still not fully implementing congressionally mandated reforms of the nation’s program for responding to coal mine emergencies, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Inspector General.
I.G. investigators found that important contact phone numbers listed in required mine Emergency Response Plans, or ERPs, weren’t operational, and that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration conducted uneven oversight of mine operator compliance with emergency response reform legislation passed more than a decade ago after earlier mining disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky.
“MSHA has not provided sufficient oversight of ERPs,” the inspector general report said. “All of the ERPs we reviewed contained inaccuracies or omissions, MSHA did not sufficiently track its review of ERPs or document its inspection of ERP components, and guidance the agency issued had material gaps. As a result, the ERPs we reviewed were inadequate in one or more ways and placed miners at unnecessarily increased risk during an emegency.”
The new report expanded on some initial findings from a brief I.G. report that was issued in October 2015 outlining the finding that phone numbers listed in the industry’s emergency plans were incorrect.
New requirements for mine emergency response efforts were set up by Congress in 2006 in the MINER Act, passed after the disasters that killed 19 workers at the Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia and the Darby Mine in Kentucky. The need for mine rescue and emergency standards was emphasized again on April 5, 2010, when 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
The new I.G. report said 43 of the 51 ERPs that investigators examined contained incorrect or outdated emergency contact phone numbers. The plans are supposed to list numbers for various types of emergency responders that mine operators have set up arrangements with for response to mine incidents.
“Having correct emergency telephone numbers listed in an ERP is essential,” the I.G. report said. “Incorrect telephone numbers unnecessarily delay communication between mine personnel and emergency responders, increasing the risk of injuries to miners.”
In response to the report, MSHA said the inspector general should not have considered 40 of the 177 incorrect phone numbers as incorrect because the caller received the following message: “At no additional charge, AT&T can help you find a similar business in the same area, since the number you have called is not in service. Please stay on the line for alternate businesses or, for an additional charge, call directory assistance.”
I.G. investigators said, “We strongly disagree with MSHA that this is an acceptable alternative. Time is of the essence in emergency situations and MSHA’s assertion that it would be acceptable to connect to a random ‘similar business in the same area’ underestimates the potential gravity of mine emergencies.
“Many valuable minutes could be wasted while waiting to connect to an alternative ‘similar business in the same area,’ ” the I.G. report said. “The MINER Act, in its local coordination section, requires mine operators to establish and maintain relationships with emergency responders. This, in turn, allows those responders to gain some level of familiarity with the mine, and thus be able to react quickly, saving valuable time and, more importantly, miners’ lives. Merely posting a list of phone numbers or randomly connecting to an emergency provider unfamiliar with the specifics of a mine does not satisfy the spirit of the MINER Act’s local coordination section.”
Also, the I.G. said it strongly disagreed with MSHA’s plan to direct mine operators to default to local 911 calls in case of an emergency.
“Local emergency providers with which the mine operator has made previous arrangements are the first stop in an emergency, while dialing 911 would be part of a comprehensive approach to an emergency response,” the report said. “Emergency providers contacted by dialing 911 are unlikely to be familiar with the mine and issues specific to it they may encounter.”
The I.G. said all 116 of the MSHA-approved Emergency Response Plans its investigators reviewed “lacked one or more required elements,” such as information about emergency breathing devices and mine escape tools or details about any arrangements for translation services for non-English-speaking miners and their families, in case of mine incidents.
“The omissions occurred partly because MSHA had not standardized its review and approval processes across districts by developing a standardized ERP template and keeping review checklists up to date,” the I.G. report said.
For 62 of 67 mines the I.G. reviewed, the MSHA inspection reports contained “multiple instances” where agency inspectors did not date and initial tests to show they were completed. The I.G. found multiple instances of MSHA inspectors marking applicable tests as “not applicable” and where tests marked as “not applicable” during one inspection had been initialed and dated as being applicable during previous and subsequent inspections.
In a written response to the I.G. report, MSHA said the agency “agrees with the spirit of many, but not all of the OIG’s findings, conclusions and recommendations.”