Government regulators report big overtime bills for Upper Big Branch blast investigation

By Tim Huber, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Regulators report OT bills for W.Va. mine probe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s state mine office has run up nearly $200,000 in overtime pay tied to the deadly Upper Big Branch mine explosion.

Overtime hours topped 5,000 at the Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training between the April 5 explosion and Tuesday, agency spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater said in an e-mail. Overtime pay over the period totaled $197,202. The agency’s payroll averages $500,000 a month.

All the extra cost is tied directly or indirectly to Upper Big Branch, Fitzwater said.

The explosion killed 29 miners and injured two others, making it the deadliest at a U.S. coal mine since 1970.

State mine inspectors have been involved since the tense weeklong search for possible survivors and the ongoing investigation of what may have caused the massive blast. The state mine office is conducting that probe jointly with its federal counterpart, the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA expects overtime related to the explosion will total $1.7 million for fiscal 2010, which ends Thursday, spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.

The state’s work on the investigation, however, doesn’t mean the state can slack off its routine responsibilities, particularly the four safety inspections required at each West Virginia mine every year. The state currently has about 85 inspectors to cover about 165 active surface and 170 underground mines. Likewise, state law requires investigations of all mining fatalities.

“These are legislative mandates, you can’t mess around with them,” state mine safety chief Ron Wooten told The Associated Press in an interview.

Wooten is targeting the middle of summer 2011 for the state to complete its Upper Big Branch investigation and release a report, though he says that date is just a goal.

The agency’s overtime costs are being paid from Gov. Joe Manchin’s contingency funds, spokesman Melvin Smith said.

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