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House GOP: MSHA failed to enforce existing laws

See Thursday's Gazette story here.

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Republicans pressed federal mine safety chief Joe Main for answers Thursday about a series of audits that revealed missed inspections and inadequate enforcement by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

GOP members of an Education and Workforce subcommittee jumped on the audits, pointing to them in arguing against passage of new mine safety legislation in response to last April's Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

"It's pretty damning, when you look at it," Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., told Main, pointing to a Charleston Gazette story that first published the audit results.

"You've mentioned that MSHA was using every tool at your disposal, and you've asked here now for more legislation to give you more tools," Kline said. "Yet it seems looking at this story the failure is not at having the right tools in the toolbox, but in the people using all the tools in the toolbox."

Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walbert, R-Minn., added, "If there is one thing we know, it is the strongest law on the books cannot protect miners if the agency charged with enforcing those laws fails to do so."

Main conceded that a summary of MSHA Office of Accountability Audits conducted in 2008 and 2009 revealed "systemic problems" similar to those documented in numerous previous MSHA internal reviews, Inspector General reports and U.S. Government Accountability Office audits going back more than 20 years.

"I think these problems existed and we have to put in place measures to train these problems out," Main told lawmakers. "Hopefully, as we look down the road, the kind of systemic problems that we've seen, we don't find them."

The MSHA summary report, quietly provided to Congress just two weeks before the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, did not specify which MSHA field offices were audited and MSHA has so far declined to make public the office-specific results.

In a news briefing after the committee hearing, Main would not commit to releasing those more-detailed audits or to making public additional audits conducted by MSHA's accountability office lasts year.

"We'd have to go back and even figure out what audits are even involved here," Main said. "There's some time involved here."

Questions from Kline and other Republicans overshadowed the efforts of House Democrats to use Thursday's committee hearing to promote mine safety legislation they failed to get through Congress last year.

Democrats, including Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia, defended Main and tried to steer the hearing away from any of MSHA's problems.

"You've come under a little criticism here in the latest reports that have been released," Rahall told Main, "but I think you responded very adequately to the chairman's questions."

Democrats are trying to revive the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act, which last year died in the then-Democratic-controlled House and went nowhere in the Senate. The legislation would have given MSHA new enforcement authority, including improved ability to shut down problem mines, increased safety penalties, and more protection for workers who complain about unsafe conditions.

During Thursday's hearing, the Obama administration backed off its support for that legislation. Main told lawmakers he was not asking them to "take up any particular bill," given "that this is a new Congress with new leadership."

Main said the administration still believes legislation is needed, although, to reform MSHA's "pattern of violations" program, allow inspectors to more quickly seek court injunctions against troubled mines, provide more criminal penalties against operators, and increase whistleblower protections.

"To make MSHA truly effective in cracking down on serial violators who seem indifferent to miners' healthy and safety," Main said, "MSHA needs additional tools that only Congress can provide."

Main was the only witness at Thursday's hearing, the first to consider mine safety issues in any detail since the Republicans took control of the House following last November's elections.

In his prepared testimony, Main tried to signal willingness to work more closely with the mining industry, promoting MSHA's educational and training programs and emphasizing that agency officials would closely examine potential costs of new regulations.

"We are concerned with the economic and technological feasibility of our regulations, and the Mine Act requires us to take that into consideration when developing regulations," Main said.

Main also told lawmakers it could be "months" before his agency completes its investigation and issues a report on the Upper Big Branch explosion.

"We don't know when we're going to be done," Main said. "I think it's going to be months before we're able to release the information we have."

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


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