U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) yesterday announced that he was reintroducing his mine safety legislation with new provisions to fix more safety issues revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 miners in Montcoal.
The bill is known as the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2012.
“The catastrophe at Upper Big Branch was a wakeup call that not enough was being done to protect our coal miners,” Rockefeller said. “In the two years since that terrible day we’ve made some progress, but major reforms are still desperately needed and continue to be stalled by opponents. Another 20 miners have been killed on the job so far just this year, and even one death is one too many.”
Congress has held nine hearings on mine safety since the Upper Big Branch disaster, and five federal, state, and independent entities have conducted investigations into the cause of the tragedy and released recommendations for mine safety laws and enforcement.
“We cannot—and we dare not—forget our obligation to miners, their families and our West Virginia communities.”
Since the Upper Big Branch tragedy two years ago, both Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration have enacted some targeted laws and regulations to improve the health and safety of coal miners. However, Rockefeller felt that comprehensive legislation was still needed to obtain more safety improvements, including those specifically recommended by West Virginia miners’ families and investigations into the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Some progress has been made since 2010, such as the Wall Street Reform Law, which included language requiring publicly-traded mining companies to disclose serious safety violations to shareholders, the public, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Mining companies that fail to properly disclose this information face SEC penalties.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had also revised the screening criteria for placing mines onto a “Pattern of Violations.”
In April 2011, MSHA placed two mines onto a Pattern of Violations, and at of the end of 2011 had notified 94 mines that they faced a “potential Pattern of Violations,” the regulatory precursor to being placed onto a Pattern of Violations.
Congress also appropriated $22 million through the Supplemental Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010 to help reduce the backlog of appeals at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. During the year that the funding was available, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission hired six additional judges and support staff and, along with the Department of Labor, was able to dispose of 11,643 cases, including 6,924 cases that had been specifically targeted for backlog reduction.
In June 2011, MSHA issued final regulations requiring mine operators to maintain incombustible content of combined dust of at least 80 percent in underground mines.
As of May this year, MSHA had conducted 452 impact inspections resulting in 8,106 citations, 811 orders, and 32 safeguards.
New provisions that featured in the bill’s reintroduction include prohibiting mine operators from keeping two sets of books, establishing strict penalties for unsafe ventilation changes, limiting miners’ exposure to Black Lung Disease, improving federal and state coordination to combat safety violations and improving mine safety technology and enhancing safety training.
The first new provision, Rockefeller said in a news release, “directly addresses the fact that Massey had two sets of books at Upper Big Branch and was not properly sharing information about the condition of the mine with MSHA. These are changes based on the recommendations of the UMWA in their report, and deals with issues that many of the reports highlighted.”
Rockefeller also reintroduced other provisions back into the bill, including giving MSHA expanded authority to subpoena documents and testimony, which it currently cannot; Provide an independent investigation of serious accidents; Strengthen whistleblower protections for miners who speak out about unsafe conditions; Increase maximum criminal penalties; And tighten standards when federal regulators cite a “pattern of violations” in mines that have been targeted for repeat safety violations, and hold mine operators accountable for safety in their mines.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (also D-W.Va.) said in a statement that he supported his fellow Senator’s bill:
“A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting once again with a few of the families of the fallen miners of Upper Big Branch who traveled to Washington. These families have endured so much, and have been told time and again that they just need to show a little more patience,” Manchin said. “Well, let me tell you that we’re all tired of hearing simple rhetoric. We have been talking about these reforms for far too long. It’s time for all of us to sit down together, to put our parties and our politics aside, and do the right thing for the safety of our miners. That’s what these surviving family members have asked us to do, so that no other family ever has to endure what they have gone through.
“Whether it was as Governor or as Senator, I will always put our miners’ safety first, and I am proud to support all legislation that leads to meaningful mine safety reform.”
“The wounds from this heart-breaking disaster are still very fresh, and will never fully heal,” Rockefeller said. “But we have a deep and continuing obligation to make sure that miners – and all workers – can go to work, do their jobs, and return home safely to their families at the end of the day. I stand with our miners and will reinforce my commitment to improve mine safety for future generations.”
It is unknown when the Senate will hear the bill.