A series of fatal mine disasters and subsequent investigations revealed a stunning and systematic failure in the government’s oversight of mining safety, with much of the blame falling on the beleaguered shoulders of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The problems began to dribble out after a series of disasters made 2006 the deadliest year for mining accidents in 11 years. A total of 47 people died — 12 of them in a coal mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia. Congress responded by passing the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act in 2006, but a subsequent investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that MSHA was sluggish in implementing the reforms called for in the legislation. And before long, MSHA had much more to worry about; in August 2007, six miners at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah, were trapped in a collapse. During the ensuing rescue effort, three rescue workers were killed. Investigations conducted by both MSHA and the Department of Labor later illuminated what went wrong at Crandall Canyon, and painted a disturbing picture of the federal government’s role. Three years before the collapse, it turned out, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which monitors how much coal is mined from public lands, wrote about serious structural problems at the mine. Because BLM is part of the Department of the Interior and MSHA is part of the Department of Labor, MSHA never knew about BLM’s concerns until after the accident. A 2008 report from Labor’s inspector general found MSHA “negligent” in approving the mining plan at Crandall, a claim MSHA denies. Labor’s report found that MSHA did not adequately review the engineering information and did not consult with experts when deciding whether to approve the Crandall Canyon project; the report also found that efforts to test the integrity of the mine’s roof were inadequate. A report from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also found that an engineer in MSHA’s Denver office brought up concerns about the Crandall plan, but was overruled by superiors after a meeting with company representatives. In the wake of the Crandall Canyon disaster, Labor conducted a full audit of MSHA and found that the agency’s Office of Coal Mine Safety and Health did not perform required inspections in 107 of the nation's mines in 2006. Fifteen percent of the inspections performed were not documented. An independent review, traced some of the problems to what it said was chronic understaffing and underfunding of the MSHA over the course of the Bush administration.
In January 2008, despite a veto threat from President Bush, the House passed HR 2768, which shortened the deadline mine owners had to install the new safety gear mandated in 2006’s MINER Act. It also called for increased oversight for retreat mining, the method used in Crandall Canyon, in which coal pillars supporting the mine’s roof are destroyed to reach coal trapped inside them. The bill has not been acted on in the Senate, so the legislation will likely need to be reintroduced in the 111th Congress. MSHA leveled almost $2 million in fines against the owners of the Crandall Canyon mine. The agency has also stepped up its enforcement in 2008, slapping mines with $97.4 million in fines over the first 10 months of the fiscal year — an increase of 141 percent over 2007. Mine operators have complained that the agency is being too heavy handed in order to change its public persona, and that production is being hurt by the increase in citations. After being assessed nearly $1.5 million in fines for alleged safety violations, the American Coal Company filed suit against MSHA in November, claiming the agency’s enforcement “has demonstrated a clear pattern of disregard for both the spirit and intent of the law.” In September 2008, MSHA announced it would be seeking a criminal investigation of both the mine operator and the engineers involved in the Crandall Canyon disaster. The Department of Labor press office did not respond to a request for comment, but in July Secretary Elaine Chao issued a statement noting that “over the last two years, MSHA has implemented numerous improvements to better protect the safety and health of America’s miners.”