Senators: WIPP’s Missed Inspections ‘Unacceptable’

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall


WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced Monday that the Department of Labor has responded to their March request for an explanation detailing why the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) failed to conduct legally required regular safety inspections at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

The senators asked for the information after an investigation into a February truck fire at WIPP revealed that MSHA had done only two inspections during the three years before the accident.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich

A specialized salt mine more than 2,000 feet below ground, WIPP is covered by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. By law, the Labor Department’s MSHA is required to inspect WIPP no less than four times a year. In MSHA’s response, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main said that the problem stems from confusion about MSHA’s authority in the DOE-run facility.

“The 1987 agreement is the only signed agreement MSHA has on record,” the letter reads. “MSHA does not have records on inspections at the WIPP facility prior to FY1995, but since FY1995, MSHA has conducted ‘periodic’ inspections at WIPP, including some years (FY2005-2007) in which MSHA conducted four inspections. MSHA is now conducting inspections at the WIPP facility four times a year as required by the WIPP Act.” 

“It’s unacceptable that MSHA allowed critical safety inspections to fall by the wayside amid unresolved negotiations with DOE, putting the health of the workers at WIPP and the surrounding community at risk,” Udall said. “I’m glad MSHA is now conducting the required regular inspections, and I urge the agency to work with DOE officials and resolve any outstanding discrepancies over obligations related to inspection activities to ensure WIPP can reopen in the future to conduct operations with the highest safety standards in place.” 

“I’m extremely disappointed that MSHA failed to conduct the necessary inspections at WIPP,” Heinrich said. “Risking the safety and health of the community and WIPP personnel is unacceptable under any circumstances. I look forward to seeing MSHA and DOE work together to ensure key safety management programs are in place and to reinstate a culture in which safety is the top priority.”

MSHA performed an inspection of the WIPP facility in June, during which it issued 52 Compliance Assistance Visit (CAV) notices for violations of mandatory safety or health standards. 

A copy of the letter the senators received from MSHA is available HERE.