03/27/2012 12:29 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Upper Big Branch Mine Inspectors 'Could've Done Better,' Says Safety Chief Joseph Main

WASHINGTON -- The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration told lawmakers Tuesday on Capitol Hill that his agency wasn't responsible for the 2010 tragedy at Upper Big Branch mine, although he admitted federal inspectors came up short in preventing an explosion in West Virginia that claimed the lives of 29 miners.

"I don't think there's any question there were things we could've done better at Upper Big Branch," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary at the Labor Department. "But by the same token, what the agency was up against ... was a challenge sometimes beyond the capability of any inspector, even an experienced inspector, to catch up with."

Independent investigators have found that managers at Upper Big Branch, which was operated by former coal giant Massey Energy, routinely hid safety problems from inspectors and tipped off colleagues when inspectors came on property. Nevertheless, a report released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last week found that proper enforcement on the mine from MSHA could have prevented the disaster.

"If MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances of -- and possibly could have prevented -- the UBB explosion," the NIOSH panel noted. The report delivered a blow to MSHA defenders who have argued that the agency didn't have the power or resources to handle Massey's deceptions.

Main, a well-respected mine safety expert and former miner himself, argued during the congressional hearing on the tragedy that MSHA's failings stemmed from the inexperience of inspectors, due to budget cuts and mass retirements several years ago.

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said that there was plenty of blame to go around for the tragedy, but that the "inexcusable" failure "start[s] with us," the government. Regardless of Massey's deliberate misleading of inspectors, Andrews said that Congress had failed to give MSHA "all the tools it needs." And some of the failings of safety inspectors "can't be written off for a lack of experience or a lack of personnel," he said. "They just didn't do their jobs very well."

Main said the agency had "made a lot of changes since Upper Big Branch" and was "going to do a better job of targeting problem mines out there."

"Could we have done better? There's absolutely no question about that," Main went on. "We're on a path to really just step back and fix the problems at MSHA."