After a coal mine explosion that killed five people in 2006, an internal review by the Mine Safety and Health Administration sharply criticized its own inspection process. It said many safety flaws had not been corrected before the blast because of faulty inspection practices, “coupled with weak supervisory, managerial and headquarters oversight.”

Now Norman Page, the MSHA district manager who oversaw that mine’s inspections, has been named to lead the investigation of what went wrong at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, where an explosion last week killed 29 workers.

Former regulators and industry experts said MSHA should have chosen someone else to probe last week’s accident in West Virginia, the deadliest in a quarter-century.

“Does it concern me that a district manager who was involved in a previous devastating accident where multiple problems were not picked up by MSHA is running the investigation? Absolutely, that is troublesome,” said Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, an industry newsletter.

She said the agency should have chosen someone familiar with MSHA but not employed by it.

Other experts said MSHA should convene a public hearing, which is the only way for the agency to use subpoena power. MSHA has held only one public hearing about coal mine safety.

“That is the only way MSHA has of getting at the truth,” said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA lawyer.

The questions about MSHA’s investigation were one part of the continuing controversy surrounding last week’s coal mine disaster as President Obama prepared to meet today with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA head Joseph Main.

Two major institutional shareholders — including the New York state comptroller, who acts as trustee for one of the state’s pension funds — have called on Massey Energy’s board of directors to oust the company’s chairman, Don Blankenship. Massey director Bobby Inman, a former National Security Agency director and CIA deputy director, rejected the call.

The last four bodies were removed from the mine Tuesday, but MSHA has not released the names, jobs and experience levels of the miners killed, deferring to Massey.

The company declined to release the information, citing “privacy” concerns. In previous disasters, MSHA has released that information promptly, industry experts said.

West Virginia, whose regulators have compiled their own long list of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, has appointed a former federal regulator, Davitt McAteer, to do a separate report about the accident.

In each of the past two years, the mine received close to 300 safety citations from the state, more than double the number in 2006 and 2007.

And in the first three months of this year, the state’s Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training had highlighted, among other concerns, unresolved ventilation problems “of a serious nature and involving an extraordinarily high degree of negligence or gravity.”

On Tuesday, Solis blamed a “computer glitch” in October 2009 for MSHA’s failure to notify Massey Energy that its Upper Big Branch mine fell into the category of “potential pattern of (safety) violation” that could have led to stricter enforcement measures. MSHA said its computer failed to count eight citations.

Main, the MSHA chief, said it made no difference because Massey reduced the number of new violations by more than 60 percent. Other industry safety experts, however, said the mine’s record was so dismal that it still should have been subjected to tougher enforcement measures.

MSHA would not comment on its choice of Page to run the investigation of the Upper Big Branch accident, but in a news release last week, it noted his 25-year career with the agency, including positions as mine inspector, ventilation and roof specialist, ventilation supervisor, roof control supervisor and assistant district manager.

Page was the district manager for MSHA on May 20, 2006, when an explosion at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Ky., killed five miners and injured a sixth. As the District 7 manager, Page oversaw inspectors and specialists in areas such as roof control and ventilation, and he reported to officials in the administrator’s office in Washington.

The MSHA internal review did not blame the agency for the Darby accident, but it concluded that “ineffective use of Performance Management System permitted poor performance to continue uncorrected at all levels in District 7.”

It added that the agency’s accountability program “does not adequately identify root causes and eliminate recurrence of those weaknesses. Despite its name, the Accountability Program does not hold employees accountable for correcting and eliminating deficiencies.”

The report said that inspections sometimes failed to identify defects in seals that were later blamed for contributing to the disaster at Darby even though the seals had been inspected by the Harlan County field office “a number of times.”

The MSHA and state investigations at Upper Big Branch mine are expected to look at many of the same kinds of safety violations involved in the Darby accident.

An examination of records from West Virginia state regulators show violations that echo the complaints of federal regulators.

On Jan. 27, a state inspector said that a ventilation change made by Massey between Dec. 18 and 21 was rejected by regulators on Dec. 31. A new plan was approved but never implemented. “The rejected plan is still being used,” the state inspector wrote.

A state agency spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the ventilation system was eventually changed.


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