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Some call for action on Upper Big Branch anniversary

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As West Virginians marked the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster Friday, some political leaders renewed their calls for tougher mine-safety legislation.

"It is not enough merely to think back, to mourn, and to wish," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes the disaster site. "That does not do justice to those we lost. We must act."

Rahall is among the co-sponsors of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2013, the latest effort by congressional Democrats to give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration more tools to protect the nation's coal miners.

Among other things, the legislation would give MSHA expanded authority to go after renegade mine operators, increase penalties for criminal safety violations and help protect miners who complain about unsafe working conditions.

"We heard repeatedly in the weeks, months and years after the disaster that action would be taken in Congress after all the facts about what caused it were in," said United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts. "That proved to be false. Miners and their families need more than lip service from congressional leadership; they need action."

On April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through the Raleigh County mine. Twenty-nine workers died, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Four investigations blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey Energy Co. of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge, coal dust-fueled explosion.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin reached a deal to not prosecute Alpha Natural Resources for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities that it inherited when it purchased Massey Energy in June 2011.

That deal required the firm to spend $80 million during the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund. Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Goodwin's deal allowed federal officials to pursue potential criminal cases against any individuals -- including Massey executives -- for violations related to the mine disaster.

So far, one former Upper Big Branch miner, a former mine superintendent and a mine security chief have gone to prison. An official from another Massey mine is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in a deal to cooperate with prosecutors.

During a plea hearing in February, that other Massey official, David C. Hughart, alleged that longtime corporate CEO Don Blankenship was part of a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal inspectors. Through his lawyer, Blankenship has said he did nothing wrong.

Following the disaster, independent investigators also said state and federal regulators didn't do enough to prevent the deaths, and safety advocates said tougher laws and rules were needed.

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


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