WASHINGTON, D.C. | July 21, 2010
On April 5, 2010, a massive underground explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia tragically took the lives of 29 miners. Immediately, Congress recognized changes were needed to protect underground coal miners – toughening and modernizing mine safety laws, and holding federal regulators and inspectors accountable for enforcing those laws.
Democrats Put Speed Ahead of Safety
Members on both sides of the aisle recognize the need for reform and stronger enforcement in the wake of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine and other recent underground mining tragedies. Members cannot legislate responsibly without all the facts, yet Democrats are moving full-speed ahead without vital information.
- The Mine Safety and Health Administration, along with other state and federal authorities, is still in the early stages of investigating the Upper Big Branch explosion. The results of those investigations – which will provide critical information about the cause of the explosion and what could have been done to prevent it – are not expected for several months. Even Congress has not completed its investigation into mine safety after being granted extraordinary oversight tools earlier this year.
- On June 23, the IG’s office issued an alert memorandum raising serious questions about MSHA’s enforcement of the “pattern of violation” provisions of federal mine safety laws. The IG found MSHA removed at least 10 mines from the “enhanced oversight that accompanies POV status” for “reasons other than appropriate consideration of the health and safety of conditions in these mines.” The full report on MSHA’s enforcement of POV provisions of the law is not due until September.
By rushing to legislate before these investigations are complete, Democrats are preparing to pass a mining bill without knowing the cause of the worst mining tragedy in four decades, and without understanding what steps must be taken to ensure effective enforcement by a federal agency known to be falling short.
Democrats Dilute the Focus on Mine Safety
Instead of focusing on mine safety, Democrats have weighed their legislation down with sweeping changes to the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act that will do nothing for miners working underground. In fact, these so-called workplace safety reforms do nothing at all to help employers make their workplaces safer. The Democrats’ bill devotes far more attention to punitive measures and legal hurdles than proactive steps to prevent mining and other workplace injuries and fatalities. The changes to the OSH Act in particular will drive up costs and create legal hurdles for job-creators, making it more difficult to put Americans back to work at a time when our economy desperately needs new jobs. Among the most troubling provisions of H.R. 5663:
- Changes workplace safety policies under the OSH Act, which will affect virtually every private sector business in the country.
- Threatens potentially vast numbers of individuals with criminal liability even if they had no involvement with a safety violation – discouraging workers from seeking leadership positions and undermining longstanding legal standards.
- Transforms “whistleblower protections” from their current role as an important safeguard to protect workers who report violations into a tool for trial lawyers to challenge employment practices having nothing to do with safety.
- Potentially undercuts employer participation in proactive safety strategies by threatening legal penalties – including incarceration – for merely knowing of conduct rather than “willful” violations of the law. This will invite greater confusion and litigation.
The GOP Alternative: Making Mines Safer. Period.
Republicans support mine safety. That means reducing risks underground and holding both industry and federal authorities accountable for following and enforcing the law. Republicans believe we cannot fully respond to the Upper Big Branch mining tragedy until state and federal investigations are complete. While those investigations continue, Republicans have identified three preliminary areas for reform. Those are:
Empowering MSHA and Holding the Agency Accountable
- Strengthen and clarify “pattern of violation” enforcement tools so MSHA finally holds bad actors accountable; put new procedures in place more quickly.
- Provide MSHA with subpoena power to thoroughly investigate violations.
- Remove current conflict of interest by requiring an independent investigation of MSHA’s actions in cases of serious mining accidents.
Identifying and Punishing Bad Actors
- Increase penalties for willful safety violations and impose tough new criminal sanctions for tipping off mines about to be inspected.
- Allow mine operators to be fined for frivolously challenging citations and penalties.
- Increase the frequency of federal inspections for high-hazard areas within mines failing to meet safety standards.
Modernizing Mine Safety Standards
- Increase rock dusting requirements to reduce levels of explosive coal dust in mines.
- Require study of explosivity meters to ensure technology advances to allow real-time analysis of explosion risks underground.
- Expand use of personal dust monitors to keep miners aware of and able to respond to conditions underground that could have long-term health consequences.
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