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Blog: Accountability Matters: Reforms in the Wake of Upper Big Branch


Location: Washington, DC

When 29 miners were killed in a catastrophic explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010, an entire nation mourned the worst coal mining disaster in decades. We can't bring back the lives lost, but we can take stock of what went wrong, making sure those who were responsible pay the price and doing everything possible to ensure that our mine safety work at the Labor Department is stronger than ever going forward.

So far, there have been four convictions connected to either the accident or the Massey corporate culture. The Mine Safety and Health Administration imposed a $10.8 million fine, the largest in agency history. And the company that purchased Massey agreed to pay nearly $210 million for, among other things, remedial safety measures; a trust fund for mine safety and health improvements; and restitution payments for the victims' families.

As with all mining fatalities, MSHA launched an inquiry into the accident, which took more than a year and a half to complete. MSHA also conducted a separate internal investigation, taking a hard look at the agency's actions leading up to the explosion and releasing a comprehensive report in March 2012.

While there was no evidence linking MSHA employees to the explosion, the internal review did identify a number of shortcomings in the inspection and plan approval process, finding instances where MSHA and its District 4 office did not follow established agency policy and procedures.

MSHA confronted this assessment head on and, under the direction of Assistant Secretary Joseph Main, began a nearly two-year effort to implement the recommendations of the internal review.

At the end of the day, with more than 100 corrective actions completed, this process represents one of the agency's most extensive improvements in decades. It includes the revision of more than 40 policy directives, more than 20 new training sessions for MSHA personnel and the creation of a centralized system to establish better oversight of all MSHA policies.

And even before the internal review team had finished its work, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, MSHA was already putting in place a number of administrative, organizational and regulatory reforms. These included: enhanced enforcement programs, such as impact inspections and a revised pattern of violations process; upgrading the Mt. Hope, W.Va., laboratory for better coal dust and gas analyses; and the publication of final regulations on the maintenance of rock dust, examinations in underground mines and the pattern of violations program.

Responding effectively to the internal review was no small feat, especially in light of the budget cuts known as sequestration and the 16-day government shutdown last fall. The results are a testament to the dedication of MSHA staff and Joe Main. Effective leaders take responsibility and acknowledge mistakes. They are committed to accountability and continuous improvement. That's what we are doing at the Labor Department and MSHA, to ensure that our miners return home safely to their families at the end of each shift.

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