In West Virginia, lawmakers last year passed what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called "comprehensive" mine safety legislation. However, key provisions of the bill still have not been enforced, and independent investigator Davitt McAteer has said the measure wrongly focused on testing miners for drugs, even though drug use wasn't a factor at Upper Big Branch.
In Washington, lawmakers approved a measure that requires publicly traded companies to report mine safety data to their stockholders, but broader reform legislation has stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., issued a statement Friday that blamed Upper Big Branch on "a reckless mine operator and a failure of safety enforcement.
"Mining is dangerous, but it shouldn't be deadly," Kline said. "Efforts to strengthen federal mine safety protections continue."
Mine safety legislation to beef up MSHA's enforcement powers has been bottled up for more than two years, though. House Republicans blocked the bill in a procedural vote in December 2010, when Democrats brought it the year before losing their majority to the GOP.
"Efforts three years ago to make these changes bumped up against a clock and the usual special interest opposition," said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the Education and Workforce panel and a co-sponsor of the bill. "Since then, Congress has not moved any mine safety reform. The inaction is shameful. On the anniversary, every elected official should remember our responsibility to those miners who make a living in a dangerous job, not to special interests so shortsightedly and recklessly invested in the status quo."
In the Senate, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has said he plans to re-introduce his own mine safety bill soon after lawmakers return to session next week.
"Now we know there is no silver bullet," Rockefeller said recently. "No one law or industry practice will totally eliminate the risk . . . [but] it should be our unceasing promise to do everything in our power to make sure they come home safely, from every shift, to those who love and pray for them."
While Democrats have called for increased authority for MSHA, they've also in committee meetings declined to ask tough questions about the performance of the agency, which is run by former UMW safety director Joe Main.
Earlier this week, a Labor Department Inspector General's report praised MSHA for its actions since Upper Big Branch, but also said the agency hasn't yet acted -- or even set deadlines for actions -- for many key recommendations made by two Upper Big Branch enforcement reviews.
"As MSHA stalls on the other recommendations, miners are paying the price," said Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.