Feds: tougher laws needed to improve mine safety

AP News
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Posted: Mar 31, 2011 12:27 PM
Feds: tougher laws needed to improve mine safety

The head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration on Thursday renewed his call for tougher legislation to protect miners, nearly a year after an explosion killed 29 men at a West Virginia coal mine.

MSHA Director Joe Main told a Senate panel that his agency has made progress in fixing flaws in the enforcement system that came to light after the disaster. But he said new legislation would make it easier for the government to shut down problem mines, impose tougher criminal penalties and protect whistleblowers.

"This committee has a long history of standing up for our nation's miners," Main told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "I hope you do so again and pass new mine safety legislation and quickly."

The panel is considering what Congress can do to help prevent a similar accident from happening in the future. Efforts to pass sweeping mine safety legislation failed in the House last year.

Committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the Senate is ready to focus on a mine safety bill.

"We now have sufficient information to make intelligent reforms to our mine safety laws and we shouldn't waste any time in doing so," Harkin said.

Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine exploded on April 5, 2010, and the company remains the target of civil and criminal investigations. Federal investigators believe the blast was caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas mixing with coal dust, although Richmond-based Massey has disputed those findings.

Main said a full report on the investigation is "several months" away, but MSHA plans to hold a briefing on June 29 in Beckley, W.Va., to share progress on the probe with the public.

Since the April 2010 explosion, the safety agency has ramped up enforcement, created new mine safety screening procedures and conducting 228 "impact" inspections at mines with poor safety records or other warning signs of problems. The agency's new screening procedures were put in place after officials discovered that a computer error had allowed Upper Big Branch to evade heightened scrutiny.

The agency has also proposed new safety rules that would result in speedier enforcement for mines that have shown a pattern of serious violations.

Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, the committee's ranking Republican, argued that MSHA already has the tools available to improve enforcement and should use them more effectively instead of calling for new legislation. He cited an MSHA Office of Accountability report issued to the Senate Appropriations Committee just two weeks before the Upper Big Branch explosion that warned lawmakers about serious enforcement lapses at the agency.

Enzi suggested fixing the existing problems at the agency instead of "holding out for political victories that will be difficult to achieve."

Main said his agency is in the process of getting to GOP lawmakers additional reports that show MSHA's shortcomings before the Upper Big Branch explosion.

The Department of Labor's assistant inspector general, Eliot Lewis, told the committee about a report he completed last year showing that in 32 years MSHA had never successfully used its full authority to clamp down on mines with a history of serious violations. That report also faulted the agency for using a faulty computer program that sometimes left out mines that should have been flagged, and other times incorrectly included mines that were safe.

Main, who took office just a few months before the disaster, said he is still investigating why his agency wasn't more aggressive in using the tools it had prior to the accident. But he said that Upper Big Branch and subsequent inspections of other troubled mines show the need for major reforms "to change the culture of safety in some parts of the mining industry."