WASHINGTON, D.C. | July 13, 2010 -
Thank you Chairman Miller, and good afternoon to our distinguished witnesses from inside and outside the federal government. This is a far-reaching piece of legislation, and we value the multiple perspectives you bring.
The April 5th Massey mine explosion that took the lives of 29 West Virginians was a mining tragedy the likes of which our nation had not seen in four decades. We all share a goal of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.
Over the years, Congress has taken repeated steps to improve mine safety. Yet as this loss reminds us, more work must be done to modernize our laws, toughen penalties on bad actors, and ensure federal agencies are fulfilling their oversight and enforcement responsibilities.
I mentioned my appreciation for the viewpoints represented here today, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the notable absence of the Labor Department’s Inspector General. As the agency’s independent watchdog, the IG is in a unique position to offer unbiased analysis of MSHA’s strengths and weaknesses in enforcing our mine safety laws. I am disappointed Chairman Miller declined my request to call the IG to testify and share his perspective on issues clearly relevant to any serious discussion about mine safety.
In recent months, the IG’s office has identified weaknesses in mine inspector training and re-training, leaving MSHA personnel without the up-to-date knowledge of health and safety standards or mining technology needed to perform their inspection duties.
The IG’s office also identified a disturbing failure by MSHA to enforce its “pattern of violation” authority under current law, which subjects mines with repeated safety violations to stricter scrutiny and tougher enforcement.
As outlined in a June 23, 2010 Alert Memorandum, the IG’s office described an internal MSHA policy that resulted in at least 10 mines being removed from potential POV status for reasons “other than appropriate consideration of the health and safety conditions at those mines.”
I have corresponded with Assistant Secretary Main about this unacceptable breakdown in enforcement, and I look forward to continuing that dialogue today as we seek answers about the agency’s enforcement practices and capabilities.
This is a vital discussion that cannot wait, particularly because this committee appears to be moving quickly toward a vote. In fact, today we are examining legislation introduced by the majority as Members left Washington for the Independence Day work period.
I do appreciate Chairman Miller’s apparent urgency – I would simply urge us to act as quickly as is prudent to make the necessary changes to the law and its enforcement to protect miners.
Unfortunately, we do not yet have all the information we need to identify how best to keep miners safe and crack down on bad actors.
Three investigations into the Upper Big Branch explosion – by MSHA, an independent federal review commission, and the state of West Virginia – are currently underway.
At Congress’s request, the Inspector General is conducting a review of MSHA policies that led to lax enforcement. The results, which will include recommendations for reform, are not expected until September.
This Committee requested and was granted extraordinary authority from the House of Representatives to investigate underground mine safety in May. Our investigation is ongoing.
Instead of rushing to legislate without all the facts, I hope we listen to the experts who are here today and use their expertise along with the eventual findings of the investigations I just mentioned to enact a bill with a clear focus on making mines safer, period.
One important way to do that would be to set aside H.R. 5663’s misplaced inclusion of OSHA reforms in a bill that ought to be squarely focused on the safety of miners underground.
The proposed changes to the OSH Act would dramatically reshape workplace safety policies for virtually every private-sector employer in America. These provisions will drive up costs and litigation for employers – all of which would make it more difficult to create jobs at a time when our economy needs them most.
And for all these changes proposed under the banner of workplace safety, the legislation does nothing to help employers make their workplaces safer. Once again, it is a punishment-only approach that ignores the importance of proactive prevention.
Members on both sides of the aisle are anxious to make mines and miners safer. The bill before us today is a missed opportunity to learn the lessons from Upper Big Branch, and a clumsy attempt to drive up workplace litigation in the name of safety. I hope we rectify both of these flaws before any bill receives a vote in this committee.
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