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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.