CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's members of the House of Representatives have united on a proposal to get federal mine safety and health inspectors back to work, but the legislation has little chance of becoming law.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is the lead sponsor of the bill to fund the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration through the end of the calendar year, at the level it had been receiving before the partial federal government shutdown that started Oct. 1.
"MSHA performs a critical role of making sure that West Virginia coal miners come home safely each day," Capito said in a prepared statement. "This important legislation would allow MSHA to operate at full capacity, protecting our miners notwithstanding the government shutdown."
Reps. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., and David McKinley, R-W.Va., joined as co-sponsors of the bill, and Rahall delivered a floor speech Thursday about the shutdown's impact on mine safety.
In his speech, Rahall noted the deaths of three coal miners on three consecutive days last weekend in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming, echoing the concerns previously raised by the United Mine Workers union and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
"No one has linked these recent deaths directly to the government shutdown," Rahall said, "but the inability of this Congress to pass a simple bill to fund all the operations of our government has resulted in cutbacks of routine inspections that are essential to the complex system of safety oversight of this complex industry."
During the shutdown, MSHA is scheduled to furlough nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide. Rather than performing its legally mandated "regular inspections" -- four times a year for underground mines and twice annually for surface mines, MSHA is conducting only "targeted inspections" that focused on "high-hazard" mines with a history of conditions and practices that have recently caused deaths or serious injuries."
The legislation would help get mine inspectors back to work, but it does not include funding for Labor Department lawyers or the commission that hears appeals of MSHA enforcement actions. So, while inspectors would be able to order companies to fix safety problems and potentially shut down sections of mines where they fine imminent dangers, it's not clear how appeals would be heard or monetary penalties enforced.
At the same time, Democratic leaders in the Senate have refused to take up most of the House Republicans' proposals to reopen select portions of the federal government, and President Obama has threatened to veto such measures.
Aaron Albright, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the solution is for the House to vote on a "clean" funding proposal for the full federal government. House Democrats are trying to force that body's Republican leadership to take up such a measure through a parliamentary move known as a "discharge petition."
"Miller's consistent position, and the Senate's consistent position, has been that we should open the whole government now," Albright said. "And we will be able to if members of Congress from both parties sign the discharge petition this Saturday morning on the House floor."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.