Nearly two years after the worst coal mine tragedy in four decades, witnesses told the House Education and the Workforce Committee today that Congress still needs to strengthen the law in order to keep miners safe on the job.
In April 2010, a massive explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, killing 29 miners. Since then, four investigations have concluded that the actions of owner of the mine, Massey Energy, caused the tragedy.
"We recognize that the entire system failed the miners at Upper Big Branch. Past Congresses shouldn't have slashed funding for mine inspectors. MSHA needed to do a better job with the tools it had. And Massey exploited MSHA's weaknesses and those in the law," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). "The blood spilled by these miners must not be in vain or forgotten and we must protect all miners from the errors that led to Upper Big Branch disaster."
The investigations, in addition to review of the actions of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration leading up to the tragedy, also show that inspectors and the safety agencies lacked the sufficient tools and experience to ensure that Massey Energy was living up to its responsibility to protect their employees.
"Absent subpoena power and absent whistleblower protection, what we hear today is just a continued cat and mouse game. These companies feel immune from MSHA's efforts because Congress hasn't given the agency the power to subpoena and workers don't have worker protections. We're right back where we are before," said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the Committee. "As long as Congress is going to insulate the mine owners responsible for illegal behavior, I don't care how many people we give MSHA to staff up. They are going to be playing on the short end of the field. That's just unacceptable."
Witnesses identified the lack of MSHA subpoena power for investigations and inspections, low penalties for mine officials giving illegal advance notice of inspections, weak job protections for miners who speak up on dangerous conditions, and inability to shut down dangerous mines with systematic problems.
"We need to change the culture of safety in some parts of the mining industry, so that operators are as concerned about the safety of their miners when MSHA is not looking over their shoulders as when MSHA is there," said the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main. "Legislative reform should aid prosecutors in holding accountable corporate decision-makers when their actions demonstrate a criminal disregard for the lives of miners."
Reps. Woolsey and Miller are coauthors of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 1579). As chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Miller called the only congressional hearings into the Upper Big Branch tragedy that included the voices of the families and the miners of Upper Big Branch.
"The Mine Act was one of the first to provide whistleblower protections against discrimination or retaliation for reporting safety violations," said Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America. "However, these provisions are now inferior to recent and more-protective whistleblower provisions included in other statutes."
Witnesses also discussed the weak sanctions against mine owners who criminally violate a mandatory health and safety standard that result in the injury or death of miners. These weak sanctions in the law were highlighted when the mine company that owned Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine could only be charged with two misdemeanors -- with a maximum $250,000 fine for each count -- this month for the company's role in a 2007 collapse that killed six miners and three would-be rescuers.
"I ask that whatever action is taken ensures that bad-actor company executives, and they are a minority, who make the decisions and set the policies that lead to tragedies like Upper Big Branch are no longer be able to hide from the law," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV). "The families of miners are sick of watching lower level employees take the fall for upper management or exploit MSHA's weaknesses."
The Democratic legislation would give prosecutors the ability to charge a similar company with a felony and to ability to hold all individual accountable who violate the law, no matter where they stand on the corporate ladder.