WASHINGTON, D.C. | July 21, 2010
I thank the gentleman for yielding and allowing me to describe what I believe is a far better approach to addressing the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine and improve the safety of all our nation’s coal miners.
Although we all wish it were possible, we cannot go back in time and prevent the Upper Big Branch tragedy. We cannot bring back the 29 miners lost that day, nor the 23 other miners who have lost their lives this year. But we can learn the lessons from these tragedies.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration is currently conducting a comprehensive investigation into the Upper Big Branch tragedy. Likewise, the state of West Virginia and an independent panel of experts are in the midst of parallel investigations to determine what caused the fatal explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine and what steps could have been taken to prevent it.
And lest we forget, an investigation into coal mining safety is currently underway right here in the Education and Labor Committee. Chairman Miller took the extraordinary step of seeking and being granted deposition authority for the purpose of investigating the safety of underground coal mining.
I consented to that request and my staff has been in regular contact with the majority as our investigation unfolds because I believe we cannot legislate without first understanding the problems we are attempting to solve.
Not one of these investigations is complete. Yet here we are today, preparing to vote on more than 100 pages of changes to our mining laws and other workplace safety and health policies. Mr. Chairman, I wish we had all the information in hand to enact a bill today. But the reality is, we do not.
This rush to legislate is both self-imposed and ill-advised. We know the Senate has no intention of even introducing legislation until the fall. Moving a bill through this committee or the full U.S. House of Representatives before August will do nothing to speed enactment of reform. The only thing this haste will accomplish is to limit our opportunity to legislate responsibly.
Waiting for the results of an investigation does not mean we sit idle. Republicans have already begun to develop a framework for legislative solutions based on the information currently available. We have identified a number of areas where Congress should consider taking action. And while additional reforms or different approaches may be necessary in the future, we believe this substitute is a more appropriate immediate approach to enhancing mine safety.
We developed this substitute by asking three fundamental questions:
- Are mining companies ignoring the law?
- Is MSHA failing to enforce the law?
- Is the law insufficient to protect miners?
We believe the answer to each of these questions is, in some measure, “yes.”
Cecil Roberts, the head of the United Mine Workers, has testified that 95 percent of mine operators are trying to do the right thing, but some small number of bad actors are flouting the law. This is unacceptable.
The Department of Labor’s Inspector General has confirmed what MSHA itself has told us: the agency has never enforced the law to its fullest extent. This, too, is unacceptable.
Both of these breakdowns in the system must be addressed. But neither can be solved with legislation alone. Tougher laws do us no good if bad actors are permitted to flout the law and federal authorities choose not to enforce it.
Yet we know there are at least some changes to the law that could help. Current law does not reflect the latest scientific research. Tougher penalties can help deter violations. And changes to sharpen the tools in MSHA’s toolbox can prod the agency to step up its enforcement.
The Republican substitute concentrates its reforms in three areas, responding to the three questions I posed earlier. Those areas are:
- Empowering MSHA and holding the agency accountable;
- Identifying and punishing bad actors; and
- Modernizing mine safety standards.
To empower MSHA and hold it accountable, we improve the Pattern of Violation structure to clearly identify perpetually unsafe mines and bring them into compliance through tougher enforcement. We grant the agency subpoena authority, and we ensure an independent investigation of MSHA’s actions in the wake of serious incidents.
To punish bad actors, we increase penalties – both financial sanctions and jail time – for willful violations of the law. And because tipping off mine personnel in advance of an inspection undermines the most basic purpose of safety inspections, we create special penalties for anyone who provides advance notice with the intent of interfering with an inspection.
Finally, to modernize mine safety standards, we use the latest scientific recommendations for rock dusting. This includes robust field testing of explosivity meters so we can eventually provide for real-time monitoring of the risk of explosion. Likewise, we ensure a standard is finally put forward for personal dust monitors, a tool that helps miners identify and mitigate hazards that can lead to long-term health problems.
The Republican substitute includes other commonsense changes, including a study of whether mine safety experts currently spread among various federal agencies ought to be brought together in a single agency to improve information sharing.
If this committee insists on legislating without the relevant information, I hope we pursue the responsible approach outlined in the Republican substitute. This amendment offers focused reforms that address specific mine-safety concerns – concerns that are more clearly understood and are shared by Members on both sides of the aisle – and on which common ground can be found. I urge my colleagues to support this sensible alternative.
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