Democrats, including Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia, defended Main and tried to steer the hearing away from any of MSHA's problems.
"You've come under a little criticism here in the latest reports that have been released," Rahall told Main, "but I think you responded very adequately to the chairman's questions."
Democrats are trying to revive the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act, which last year died in the then-Democratic-controlled House and went nowhere in the Senate. The legislation would have given MSHA new enforcement authority, including improved ability to shut down problem mines, increased safety penalties, and more protection for workers who complain about unsafe conditions.
During Thursday's hearing, the Obama administration backed off its support for that legislation. Main told lawmakers he was not asking them to "take up any particular bill," given "that this is a new Congress with new leadership."
Main said the administration still believes legislation is needed, although, to reform MSHA's "pattern of violations" program, allow inspectors to more quickly seek court injunctions against troubled mines, provide more criminal penalties against operators, and increase whistleblower protections.
"To make MSHA truly effective in cracking down on serial violators who seem indifferent to miners' healthy and safety," Main said, "MSHA needs additional tools that only Congress can provide."
Main was the only witness at Thursday's hearing, the first to consider mine safety issues in any detail since the Republicans took control of the House following last November's elections.
In his prepared testimony, Main tried to signal willingness to work more closely with the mining industry, promoting MSHA's educational and training programs and emphasizing that agency officials would closely examine potential costs of new regulations.
"We are concerned with the economic and technological feasibility of our regulations, and the Mine Act requires us to take that into consideration when developing regulations," Main said.
Main also told lawmakers it could be "months" before his agency completes its investigation and issues a report on the Upper Big Branch explosion.
"We don't know when we're going to be done," Main said. "I think it's going to be months before we're able to release the information we have."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.