CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials on Tuesday urged quick action by Congress to pass another round of mine safety reform legislation in the wake of the 29 deaths three months ago at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Joe Main, assistant labor secretary and head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the bill would help his agency crack down on renegade coal operators and "make the world a better place for miners."
But Republican lawmakers complained the legislation ignores recent failures by MSHA to use the powers agency officials already have, and mining industry officials joined in opposing the bill.
"Trying to force safety improvements through punitive measures fails to acknowledge the complexities of today's mining environment, and is not the answer we all seek," said Bruce Watzman, a vice president and lobbyist for the National Mining Association. "Acting on false perceptions of what is needed now will only create false perceptions of progress, not safer mines."
Witnesses from the administration, labor, industry and academia testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor in the first hearing on the legislation proposed two weeks ago.
Supporters said the measure is aimed at beefing up the controversial "pattern of violations" enforcement process, defending miners who speak out against unsafe practices, and generally giving MSHA more tools to protect mine workers.
The legislation would update standards for 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 of Occupational Safety and Health panel of all mining accidents involving three or more deaths.
At the start of Tuesday's hearing, Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., announced he would rename the legislation to the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, in honor of the late senior senator from West Virginia.
West Virginia Democratic Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall are co-sponsors of the bill.