Labor secretary: Time to replace federal mine safety agency's process for ID'ing trouble spots

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Wednesday said her department needs to scrap and replace its "badly broken" process for identifying the nation's most dangerous mines.

An alert from the Labor Department inspector general's office questions why the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration between 2007 and 2009 removed 21 mines from the screening process meant to flag those showing a "pattern of violations" of safety and health rules.

The alert notes that the agency has suspended the screening process with plans to revise it. The process fell under scrutiny following an April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 men. A computer error had allowed the mine to evade the screening process.

"The Office of Inspector General reaffirms what we already knew: The Pattern of Violation process is badly broken," Solis said in a statement. "It's clear that we need to scrap the current system and put a new system in place that is focused on protecting miners' safety and health."

The memo said that MSHA sought to identify patterns of "recurrent significant and substantial" violations five times during the three-year period, developing an initial list of 89 potential offenders.

"For a variety of reasons (not yet validated through audit procedures), MSHA officials removed 21 of these mines from the initial screening lists," the memo said.

The memo said some of those removals appeared "reasonable" — three mines were no longer producing coal, for instance. But at least 10 resulted when MSHA's coal mine safety and health administrator ordered district managers in March 2009 to cap the number of candidate mines at one per field office and three per district, the memo said.

"We were told this guidance was necessary to address resource limitations," the memo said. "However, this instruction set a limit that was inappropriate for this enforcement program."

The memo warns further that all the mines removed "did not receive letters notifying them of potential (pattern of violation) status nor did MSHA monitor these mines for improved rates of significant and substantial violations."

Six months before the deadly blast, the computer error missed eight prior citations at Upper Big Branch. Had they been included, MSHA would have notified the mine and given the operator 90 days to improve safety conditions. MSHA director Joe Main earlier told AP that the mine had reduced its violations by more than 60 percent anyway, and the error didn't have an impact on the tragedy.

"The more one looks at the Pattern of Violation system we inherited, the more problems one finds," Main said in a Wednesday statement. "That's why, in April, we announced that we'd be rewriting the Pattern of Violation rules this year."

Both Solis' office and congressional Democrats slammed the screening process, developed in 2007, as a flawed product of the prior administration.

"Prior to Assistant Secretary Main's confirmation, MSHA obstructed a key safety enforcement tool that could have endangered the lives of mine workers," House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif. "This memorandum also raises questions about whether MSHA districts have sufficient resources to enforce the law."