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H.R. 6495, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2010

On April 5, 2010, an underground explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia tragically took the lives of 29 miners. As Congress awaits the results of state and federal inquiries into this tragedy, it is vital to legislate responsibly, taking the time to identify the most effective changes to protect underground coal miners. Republicans are committed to 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 mining tragedies. Members cannot legislate responsibly without all the facts. Unfortunately, Democrats are trying to pass a legislative solution without vital information. 

  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration, along with other state and federal authorities, is still investigating the Upper Big Branch explosion. These investigations will provide critical information about the cause of the explosion and what could have been done to prevent it. However, the results of those investigations are not expected for several months.
  • 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. In a report released in September, the IG found MSHA has never – in 32 years – used its existing authority to punish mine operators for a pattern of violations. In response, MSHA has begun internal reforms based on existing law that will strengthen mine safety.  

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. In addition, passing changes to the law will undo the progress MSHA has made and may undermine future progress by an agency with a history of falling short. 

A Flawed Process Equals a Flawed Bill 

Congress has a history of working on a bipartisan basis to improve mine safety. The most recent example of this work was in 2006 when Congress passed the bipartisan MINER Act. Unfortunately, today, Democrats are rushing a bill through the House mere days after their latest proposal was introduced, and just hours after making last minute changes behind closed doors. As a result, the bill is deeply flawed.  

  • H.R. 6495 lacks important details on the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion because numerous investigations into the accident are still on-going;
  • H.R. 6495 ignores steps MSHA has taken to enhance miner safety using tools that already exist in current law, potentially undoing months of work done on behalf of mine safety;
  • H.R. 6495 creates confusion by establishing a new framework for pattern of violations, despite recent changes to the current system implemented by MSHA; and
  • H.R. 6495 fails to put prevention first by targeting mine operators working in good faith on behalf of their workers’ safety. 

Miners deserve better than a flawed bill rushed through a flawed process. 

Republicans’ Preliminary Proposals to Enhance Mine Safety 

Republicans believe we cannot fully respond to the tragedy of Upper Big Branch until the investigations are complete. While those investigations continue, Republicans have identified preliminary areas for reform. Unfortunately, Democrats are denying members the opportunity to offer alternatives such as the proposal offered by Republicans earlier this year.  

The Republican mine safety alternative would –  

Identify and Punish 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.

Empower MSHA to Enforce the Law and Modernize Mine Safety

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Require a study of explosivity meters to ensure technology advances to allow real-time analysis of explosion risks underground. 

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