Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said his agency will also be asking Congress to give it new authority -- such as subpoena power and tougher criminal penalties -- in the wake of the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
"Changes are needed," Main told lawmakers. "Fatalities at coal mines can be prevented. Explosions at coal mines can be prevented."
Lawmakers questioned why MSHA didn't use all of the tools it already has to stop safety problems at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.
And during the first in a series of congressional hearings expected this year about the Massey disaster, a leading safety advocate urged lawmakers to consider more reforms in the wake of the fifth major coal-mining accident since 2006.
"Five coal mining disasters in barely four years is not only a crisis, it is a national disgrace," said Wes Addington, a coal miner's son who now represents miners for the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called Tuesday's hearing of his Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, to take testimony on how to strengthen safety enforcement in dangerous workplaces. Two of the hearing's four panels of speakers focused on coal-mine safety and the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Main rattled off a list of enforcement actions taken by MSHA in the months prior to the April 5 explosion, including more than 1,800 hours of inspections in 2009 alone and dozens of serious citations and enforcement orders.
"These tragic events followed a year-long effort by MSHA to use the tools we had available to force Massey Energy to comply with the law and turn around its extensive record of serious safety and health violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine," Main said in his prepared testimony.
Prodded by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Harkin pressed Main about why MSHA hadn't taken stronger steps available to the agency, such its authority to seek a federal court injunction to shut down the mine for creating a continuing threat to its workers.
"Why can't you use that?" Harkin asked. "Why hasn't it ever been used?"
Main responded, "That's a good question. I can't speak for past administrations, but I can tell you we're going to use it."
"Well, I hope so," Harkin replied.
Main said he wants to improve MSHA's process of fining operators for violations and for taking stepped up enforcement -- including shutting down mining sections or entire mines that commit patterns of violations. But, he said, the fastest way for MSHA to take tougher steps is to begin seeking court injunctions against bad operators.