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

On April 5th of this year, a tragedy struck Montcoal, West Virginia. On that day, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 miners and provided a stark reminder that coal mining is a profession marked by risks and dangers. And while steps have been taken to strengthen protections for miners, this tragedy and others like it remind us that more work remains to be done.

I believe steps can be taken by federal and state regulators, mine operators, and miners themselves to reduce the dangers inherent for those who mine the natural resources that power our nation. That is why it is with deep regret that I oppose the legislation before us today.

Once again, well-intended reforms addressing a vital issue are being rushed through a flawed process that results in a deeply flawed bill. This is not the way to govern. This is not the way to advance the concerns and interests of the American people. And this is not the way to strengthen important safety protection for miners. The bill we are considering today, under a suspension of the House rules, is the wrong response for several important reasons.

First, it seeks to create a solution to a problem we do not fully understand. The explosion at Upper Big Branch resulted in the worst mining disaster in 40 years. Since that time, significant state and federal resources have been brought to bear to investigate the cause of the incident, help identify weaknesses in existing law, and determine whether current law is being obeyed by mining operators and aggressively enforced by federal authorities. These are critical questions for which we are still awaiting answers.

The Majority’s proposal also ignores important steps the Mine Safety and Health Administration has taken in recent months to strengthen safety standards through existing law. Republicans have consistently called on MSHA to utilize all the tools at its disposal to protect miners and hold bad actors accountable. I am pleased to see the agency is finally beginning to do just that.

As part of its efforts, MSHA has revised the current framework of identifying mines operating with a pattern of violations.  For thirty years this process has been broken. Today, that process has changed and we are just beginning to see the results. Since MSHA has reformed the process, it has notified more than a dozen mine operators that they are at risk of being placed in a pattern of violations. It is a step in the right direction.

The agency has also implemented new rock dusting standards, issued a proposal to increase the use of personal dust monitors, and is looking at ways to improve the broken conference process.

We may question why the agency did not act sooner, but it is important to recognize the steps they are taking today. Congress should not preempt and potentially undercut reforms underway before we’ve had an opportunity to learn whether they work.

Some of my colleagues may argue that these are simply process arguments that ordinary Americans don’t care about. I don’t like discussing process any more than the next person. But I think we have learned over the last two years that the American people care a great deal about the manner in which Congress conducts its business, because a flawed process results in bad law.  Today’s legislation is no exception.

The proposal we are considering today puts punishment before prevention. It is based on the faulty premise that simply increasing penalties can lead to better safety. Our goal should be to prevent injuries and illnesses before they occur. Everyone agrees bad actors should face stiff penalties for jeopardizing the safety of miners.

But we shouldn’t establish a regime that may discourage employers from taking action they believe will strengthen their workers’ safety. We can punish bad actors but we must never lose sight of the fact that promoting safety and preventing hazards should be our first priority.

There are other flaws to the legislation, including a provision that will expand the criminalization of a person’s “knowing” conduct, as well as upending in some cases the long-established “at will” employment doctrine, which will insert federal judges in the voluntary hiring and firing decisions of mine operators and their workers.

Last Friday, the Majority introduced H.R. 6495 with no advance warning, and no consultation with Republicans. Yet here we are, days later, being told this is the only opportunity members of the House will have to enhance safety protections for underground miners. Following the same playbook used time and again by the Majority, we have no opportunity for a full and open debate and no opportunity to offer amendments to fix the errors I have just described.

A flawed process has resulted in yet another flawed bill. On behalf of miners and their families, let me respectfully say they deserve better.  I urge my colleagues to oppose the bill.

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