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House panel passes mine safety bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A House of Representatives panel on Wednesday approved the second sweeping reform of federal mine safety laws in the last five years, passing legislation written in response to the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

The House Committee on Education and Labor advanced the bill, named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, to the full House on a vote of 30-17.

"This legislation addresses serious gaps in the law and makes comprehensive, common-sense reforms to strengthen our nation's safety laws," said Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.

The bill has the support of the Obama administration, but is opposed by Republicans and by the mining industry. Its prospects for passage this year are uncertain, given that Democrats in the Senate have not even introduced their own promised mine safety bill yet.

Supporters say 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, but that has garnered new attention following the April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch. 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.

Unlike previous legislation authored by Miller, though, the new bill would not mandate that MSHA tighten the legal limit for coal dust in underground mines to help try to end black lung disease.

During a committee meeting Wednesday, Republican lawmakers failed in their efforts to strip from the bill reforms in workplace safety regulations outside the mining industry and to weaken language meant to broaden the application of criminal penalties in mine safety cases.

Democratic Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan from West Virginia both co-sponsored Miller's original bill. Neither is on the labor committee. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced her own much more limited mine safety bill this week.

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


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