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House leader presses MSHA on UBB inspection warnings

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"I recognize the MSHA has made the eradication of advance notice by mine operators an enforcement priority," John Kline said in a letter sent last week to MSHA chief Joe Main. "However, it is unclear whether you have made an equal effort to ensure MSHA personnel are not -- even inadvertently -- providing advanced notice of inspections."

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A key House leader is pressing the Obama administration for answers about whether U.S. Labor Department inspectors may have tipped off Massey Energy officials about inspections at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has asked the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration for a variety of records about the matter.

Kline cited sworn statements by one-time Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May that MSHA inspectors regularly told company officials when they planned to visit the Raleigh County mine.

"I recognize the MSHA has made the eradication of advance notice by mine operators an enforcement priority," Kline said in a letter sent last week to MSHA chief Joe Main. "However, it is unclear whether you have made an equal effort to ensure MSHA personnel are not -- even inadvertently -- providing advanced notice of inspections."

Kline asked MSHA to provide records about MSHA guidance on advance notice of inspections, citations issued to mine operators related to advance notice, and documents about any instances where agency officials did or were alleged to have warned operators about impending inspections.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has already said his office is investigating the allegations made by May when he pleaded guilty as part of a deal that has him cooperating with the sprawling federal criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. May admitted to a one-count felony charge that he conspired to violate mine safety standards and cover up the resulting unsafe conditions.

Among other things, May 43, of Bloomingrose, admitted he took part in a scheme to provide advance warning of government inspections and then hide or correct violations before federal agents could make it into working sections of the sprawling mine.

During a March 29 plea hearing in Beckley, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asked May to explain who took part in that conspiracy with him.

"It started, you know, from the MSHA inspectors coming on the property," May testified under oath. "Sometimes they would tell us, you know, they'd be back tomorrow or where they were going. And it went from there to telling everybody that was outside, you know, just scatter word by mouth on the phone, and they would tell whoever was underground.

"It's just something that happened from the time I got there until after I left and happened at every mine I've ever been to," May told Berger.

Berger pressed May on the matter, and asked him after May conferred with his lawyer, "When you said earlier that it began with inspectors coming onto the property and saying, 'We'll be back tomorrow,' was it or was it not your intention to indicate that these inspectors were part of the conspiracy that you've told me about Mr. May?"

May responded, "I don't believe it's a conspiracy, but I think, in my opinion, if they would let me know that [an inspection was planned], I would let everyone else know that."

The federal Mine Safety and Health Act makes it clear that, in carrying out its inspection duties, MSHA is not to provide advance notice of inspections to anyone. Agency policy mandates that "any information relating to inspection and investigation schedules" be restricted solely to MSHA personnel who have a need for such information.

Federal law also makes it a crime for anyone to give advance notice of any MSHA inspection. Anyone convicted of doing so can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In the wake of Upper Big Branch, MSHA officials have focused on what they say was Massey's intentional program of security guards giving underground crews advance notice of inspections. MSHA concluded that such warnings allowed Massey to cover up unsafe conditions at Upper Big Branch, and were a major contributing factor in the April 5, 2010, explosion.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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