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UBB disaster anniversary renews calls for reform

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 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Advocates of tougher federal mine safety laws renewed their calls for reform Tuesday, as communities in the coalfields of West Virginia marked the one-year anniversary of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation.

In Washington, Rep. George Miller took to the House floor and delivered a speech that blasted the failure of Congress to enact legislation to give more authority to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"Is Congress just going to sit here and simply wait for the next generation, the next tragedy, the next loss of life?" said Miller, a California Democrat and ranking minority member of the House Committee on Labor and the Workforce. "Are we going to let special interests continue to paralyze this institution?"

Democratic members of West Virginia's congressional delegation also backed more safety measures, but did so in more measured speeches or statements issued by their press offices on the one-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district includes the Raleigh County mine, said in a floor speech that there are many good coal companies that operate safe and productive mines.

"They, too, want to see those bad-actor companies that have tarnished the reputation of an important American industry reined in," Rahall said. "They do not accept a world in which they must compete against companies that would sacrifice health and lives of their own employees for competitive advantage and blatant profit."

In a White House statement, President Obama said his administration continues civil and criminal investigations that have so far prompted charges against two individuals and will push Congress to pass new safety laws.

"We owe the men and women who do this important work and the families who love them our best efforts -- not just in memory of the 29 miners who lost their lives in last year's tragedy -- but to ensure that such a tragedy doesn't happen again," the president said.Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., praised West Virginia's coal miners as "the backbone of this country, providing power for the printing presses that put ink on this newsprint, the steel and machinery that built our country into the greatest industrial power in the world, the military that keeps us safe and free, and the switches that turn on the lights in homes and businesses all over this country.

"Our miners are the salt of the earth -- patriotic, God-fearing, family-oriented and proud of their hard work," Manchin said.

Manchin told fellow senators that West Virginia "has become a leader in safety" and a state where "we don't tolerate intimidation from any company that puts profits ahead of safety."

He noted, though, that the state had three major mining disasters -- claiming a total of 43 lives -- during his tenure as governor. Also, records show that, last year, the 35 coal miners killed in West Virginia were the most in any year since 1979.

"Unfortunately, West Virginia miners have had to endure over the years among the worst safety records of any mining state in the country," said longtime safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who was appointed by Manchin to investigate the Sago, Aracoma and Upper Big Branch disasters. "That unfortunate distinction has persisted from the beginning of mining in West Virginia right up to the present day."

In West Virginia, Manchin and his successor, Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, who is acting as governor, have declined to push for language McAteer proposed to make it easier to hold corporate officials accountable for mine safety problems.

In Washington, Republicans have blocked efforts to pass a safety bill named after the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. The bill would give MSHA more power over repeat violators of safety rules, provide more protections for miners who complain about safety problems, and require independent investigations of serious incidents.

In his floor speech, Miller noted that the legislation is based in part on testimony from Upper Big Branch families and miners who survived the disaster, given in a committee field hearing in Beckley.

"Congress has utterly failed to respond to real problems that miners themselves have identified," Miller said. "A toxic political environment has failed these families and the pay-to-play nature of our politics failed these families."

House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said his committee would "continue working to ensure federal law provides strong mine safety protections and that those protections are enforced to the fullest extent of the law."

Kline also said, "miners accept the risks of this inherently dangerous profession, and deserve our appreciation and unwavering commitment to their health and safety."

Republicans in Congress and coal industry lobbyists have argued that MSHA already has plenty of tools to police the mining industry, and Democrats have hesitated to question any agency failings that have come out in the wake of Upper Big Branch.

At Upper Big Branch, an MSHA computer-programming error allowed the company to avoid a key enforcement warning letter, and agency officials declined to use new authority -- created by Congress after a series of 2006 disasters -- to cite mine operator Massey Energy for flagrant violations that bring penalties of up to $220,000 each.

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, son of a coal miner and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said MSHA "has begun sweeping, long-overdue reforms of internal operations" since the disaster.

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


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