Democrats Target Repeat Violators with Mine Safety Bill

July 1, 2010

Democratic lawmakers, seeking to prevent another mine disaster like the April explosion that killed 29 workers in West Virginia, proposed new legislation that would make it easier to shut down mines with poor safety records.

The bill — to be introduced in the House this week — would also boost penalties for serious violations, grant mine regulators the power to subpoena documents and testimony, and offer greater protection to whistleblowers who report safety problems. The Senate is expected to take up a similar measure soon.

Leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee mine safety said the measure is needed to fix a badly flawed system that came to light after the accident at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. — the nation’s worst mining accident in four decades.

“Mine operators who callously and repeatedly put their workers in danger must be held accountable,” said Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Democratic leaders have said they want to pass the legislation by year end. has led to unacceptable backlogs.

Some Republicans expressed disappointment that Democrats did not work with them in crafting the plan. Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said they wanted to see the kind of bipartisan approach that happened the last time Congress passed comprehensive changes to mine laws following the 2006 Sago mine disaster.

“Instead of pursuing that productive approach, Democrats have chosen to introduce a sweeping piece of legislation that affects every business in this country and only amplifies the adversarial role of (government regulators) without increasing safety,” the senators said in a statement.

Lawmakers worked with officials from the Labor Department and Mine Safety and Health Administration to draft the legislation, Labor Department spokesman Carl Fillichio said.

Under the current system, mine companies can file lengthy legal appeals that can last months or years, delaying the finding of a pattern of violation that could lead to stricter oversight. That system — and the massive case backlog it spawned — allowed the Upper Big Branch mine to avoid more scrutiny, despite the fact that it was repeatedly cited for ventilation and dust problems in the months leading up to the blast.

The bill would end those delays and develop a better system for MSHA to identify mines with a pattern of serious violations. If a mine meets the new criteria, miners would be withdrawn and the mine reopened for a probationary period with stepped up inspections. The mine would have to meet safety benchmarks for one year.

The agency would offer more guidance to help troubled mines get back on track, such as additional training or creation of special health and safety programs.

Mine industry officials, who were still reviewing the details, said they support the idea of looking more broadly at a mine’s safety performance as part of determining a pattern of violations.

“We believe that changing the pattern of violation system is a good step,” said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association. “It needs to be more transparent and consider more than just citations.”

Raulston said the end result needs to be “a workable system” for mine operators and “we are reviewing the proposed legislation in that light.”

Other elements of the bill would allow MSHA to seek a court order to close a mine based on continuing health and safety problems and require increased rock dusting to prevent coal dust explosions like the kind investigators believe occurred at Upper Big Branch.

The bill would grant miners the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions and increase protections for workers who complain about unsafe conditions. Miners would not lose pay if their mine is closed for safety reasons.

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