Upper Big Branch Had Unidentified Pattern of Violations

MSHA posted this statement from Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis at 5:50 p.m. today.

On Monday evening, [a] review found an error in the computer program used since 2007 to screen mines to determine whether they meet the criteria for inclusion into pattern of violation status. Specifically, the program was not counting final orders of unwarrantable citations in the ‘unpaid and uncontested; first demand letter sent’ category. This error was immediately corrected and the data re-run.

“Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine had eight citations in this category, which were not counted in the screening process.

“Inclusion of these orders means that the Upper Big Branch Mine should have been identified for further consideration for placement on a potential pattern of violation status.

“It is very likely that the Upper Big Branch Mine would have received a letter from MSHA informing Massey Energy that this mine would be included on the potential pattern of violation list.

“Had the error in the computer program been corrected, the mine could have been placed into potential pattern of violation status in October of 2009, when the last pattern of violation review for this mine took place.

On the other hand, the statement continues, the mine most likely would have avoided actual pattern sanctions because it later improved its record somewhat. It would not have been on the potential pattern list at the time of the explosion.

House Democrats immediately called for an investigation:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, Nick Rahall (D-WV), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chair of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, today called on the U.S. Department of Labor Inspector General to investigate the disclosure that a computer error prevented the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from issuing a letter to the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia warning them that the mine may be under a so-called ‘pattern of violations.’ The chairs also asked the Inspector General to look at how MSHA uses their ‘pattern of violation’ enforcement.

Meanwhile, I filed a formal FOIA with MSHA for preliminary reports and/or an official roster of the accident victims at Upper Big Branch. Spokeswoman Amy Louviere replied:

We don’t yet have the names of the victims.

The mine blew up 8 days ago, all of the missing had been found 4 days ago, the last victims were recovered today, and MSHA still doesn’t know who was in the mine?

I worked at MSHA for more than 25 years — including as information officer in mine accidents and investigations — and have covered mine safety stories for almost 6 years since then. Speaking form that perspective, this has become, I am sorry to say it, bizarre. I have never heard of the names of mine accident victims being kept secret once their families were properly notified.

And to the best of my knowledge, it has been standard practice for MSHA to obtain the victim or victims’ names from the mine operator in any fatal mine accident or prolonged entrapment. What in the world is going on?

Update: Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo has other updates this p.m., including appointment by Gov. Manchin of former MSHA assistant secretary Davitt McAteer to head a state investgation — just as McAteer did in the 2006 Sago explosion. McAteer is a longtime advocate and practitioner of sunshine in these investigations — a good thing, too.

Note: Comment function for this blog is still messed up. I have contacted tech support.

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