The NIOSH panel reported that MSHA likely could have prevented the disaster had it properly enforced mine ventilation standards and done more to force Massey to clean up explosive coal dust that provided most of the fuel for the blast.
"It is difficult -- almost impossible -- to imagine enforcement personnel missing the inherent dangers of coal dust accumulating throughout the mine," said committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn. "This enforcement error neglected a crucial safety concern that would later enhance the magnitude of this disaster."
Democratic committee members used Thursday's hearing to again push for passage of a mine-safety reform package, something that Congress has not managed to get done, even as the two-year anniversary of the disaster approaches.
"We recognize that the entire system failed the miners at Upper Big Branch," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif. "Past Congresses shouldn't have slashed funding for mine inspectors. MSHA needed to do a better job with the tools it had. And Massey exploited MSHA's weaknesses and those in the law.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said lawmakers should not use MSHA's failings as an excuse not to give the agency more tools to protect miners.
"I do not excuse MSHA's failures," Rahall said. "But the Congress should not withhold effective, lifesaving legal authorities from the agency as some kind of penalty -- because ultimately, the only people penalized by that cockeyed approach will be our miners."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.