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MSHA urges quick action on mine safety bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials on Tuesday urged quick action by Congress to pass another round of mine safety reform legislation in the wake of the 29 deaths three months ago at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Joe Main, assistant labor secretary and head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the bill would help his agency crack down on renegade coal operators and "make the world a better place for miners."

But Republican lawmakers complained the legislation ignores recent failures by MSHA to use the powers agency officials already have, and mining industry officials joined in opposing the bill.

"Trying to force safety improvements through punitive measures fails to acknowledge the complexities of today's mining environment, and is not the answer we all seek," said Bruce Watzman, a vice president and lobbyist for the National Mining Association. "Acting on false perceptions of what is needed now will only create false perceptions of progress, not safer mines."

Witnesses from the administration, labor, industry and academia testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor in the first hearing on the legislation proposed two weeks ago.

Supporters said the measure is aimed at beefing up the controversial "pattern of violations" enforcement process, defending miners who speak out against unsafe practices, and generally giving MSHA more tools to protect mine workers.

The legislation would update standards for control of explosive coal dust in underground mines, a move that scientists have urged for years to replace current guidelines that are nearly a century old. Also, the bill would mandate independent investigations by a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health panel of all mining accidents involving three or more deaths.

At the start of Tuesday's hearing, Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., announced he would rename the legislation to the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, in honor of the late senior senator from West Virginia.

West Virginia Democratic Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall are co-sponsors of the bill.

Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito said she is working on her own bill, and is concerned Miller's measure would increase mine operator appeals of enforcement actions, worsening a backlog at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

Other Republican lawmakers objected to language in the bill that broadens its impact beyond mining to other industries regulated by a sister agency, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The bill before us today is a missed opportunity to learn the lessons from Upper Big Branch and a clumsy attempt to drive up workplace litigation in the name of safety," said ranking Republican John Kline of Minnesota.

OSHA chief David Michaels responded that 14 workers die on the job every day in the United States while "every day we encounter employers who put profits above the safety of their workers, children who have lost parents, or parents who have lost children from workplace injuries.

"Workers are fired for voicing safety and health concerns, companies subject workers to known hazards while the courts spend years deciding contested citations, and our nation's workforce protection agencies are plagued with outdated laws, tools, and penalties that make it difficult to deter safety and health violations," Michaels said.

The heart of the legislation adds to the federal mine safety law a much more detailed process for "pattern of violation," or POV, enforcement, which puts operators in line for tougher sanctions.

Current law requires MSHA to put mine operators on pattern of violation status if they have a "pattern of violations of mandatory health and safety standards ... which are of such nature as could have significantly or substantially contributed to the cause and effect of ... health or safety hazards."

Under the proposed legislation, MSHA could write its new regulations to allow POV status for "any combination of citations, orders, accidents, injuries or illnesses." But the proposed bill also allows MSHA to disqualify a mine from POV status for "mitigating circumstances" that have eliminated elevated risk to miners' safety and health.

"This legislation takes a comprehensive approach to improving mine safety by making it far more difficult for rogue operators to evade the law and their responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees," said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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