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Hearing Examines Lessons of Upper Big Branch Tragedy and Ways to Improve Mine Safety

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), today held a hearing entitled, “Learning from the Upper Big Branch Tragedy.” The hearing examined the findings of numerous investigations and reviews related to the 2010 mining disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia that took the lives of 29 miners. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main testified at the hearing.  

An investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) determined that Upper Big Branch mine operator Massey Energy’s complete disregard for safety standards caused the explosion. Additionally, separate reviews of MSHA’s actions document a failure of enforcement. According to an independent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “If MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances – and possibly could have prevented – the UBB explosion.”  

After the hearing, Chairman Kline released the following statement:  

“This was an unthinkable tragedy that should have been prevented. Time and again, Massey violated the law and recklessly put workers in harm’s way. Cecil Roberts, president of the mine workers’ union, has said that 95 percent of mine operators are trying to do the right thing. Bad actors, like Massey, must abide by their legal and moral responsibility to put safety first, or face severe consequences. 

“While Massey is ultimately at fault, I am disappointed Administrator Main continues to downplay his agency’s critical failures. We cannot ensure strong safety protections without an honest discussion about enforcement. I recognize the enormous challenges facing mine inspectors and the agency, but it is long past time to stop making excuses and start providing the responsible enforcement miners deserve. 

“It has taken nearly two years to gather all the facts from Upper Big Branch. Fortunately, that time has not been wasted. The committee has engaged in continued oversight of MSHA, and we are pleased with the progress the agency has made. Today’s hearing examined a number of important issues, including whether additional protections are needed in the law. All options remain available as we examine what we’ve learned and consider ways to better protect America’s miners.” 

To learn more about this hearing, read witness testimony, or watch an archived webcast, visit www.edworkforce.house.gov/hearings.

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