CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Congressional Democrats on Tuesday released a "discussion draft" of proposed legislation they said would make it easier to shut down renegade coal operators and prevent a repeat of the April explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Supporters said the measure is aimed at beefing up the controversial "pattern of violations" enforcement process, better defending miners who speak out against unsafe practices, and generally giving the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration more tools to protect mine workers.
The legislation would update standards for the control of explosive coal dust in underground mines, a move that scientists have urged for years to replace current guidelines that are nearly a century old.
Also, the bill would mandate independent investigations by a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of all mining accidents involving three or more deaths.
If eventually made law, the legislation would be the second major overhaul of the nation's coal-mine safety law in the last four years. Congress acted in 2006 in the wake of the Sago, Aracoma and Darby disasters, and the industry is still in the midst of implementing some of those changes.
"It is clear that current law does not provide sufficient protections to miners who go underground every day," said House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif. "Today, we take the first step to ensure that the health and safety of workers are put ahead of production and profit."
West Virginia lawmakers who helped craft the proposal touted its language regarding the "pattern of violation," or POV, system, which was meant to exact tougher sanctions from mine operators that repeatedly violate safety and health rules, but has never actually been implemented against anywhere in the country.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the proposal would "tackle" the problem and "give MSHA the authority it needs to implement reforms"
"This legislation has been crafted, in large measure, to target and rein in the worst of the worst safety violators," added Rep. Nick J. Rahall, another West Virginia Democrat whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Congress gave MSHA authority more than 30 years ago to take stepped up enforcement action when mining companies repeatedly violate safety and health standards. But MSHA has either ignored this authority or written guidelines for using it that were so strict that no company has ever been placed on pattern of violation status.
After the Upper Big Branch Disaster, the pattern of violations process came under new scrutiny when MSHA admitted a computer glitch kept it from issuing a pattern of violations warning notice to the Massey mine.