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Mr. ROCKEFELLER. Mr. President, I rise today to discuss mine safety, a critical issue to my state and the tens of thousands of miners across the Nation.
Earlier this month we observed the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster which killed twenty nine of our Nation's miners. That disaster, the most deadly in decades, shocked the country and made us realize that we must aggressively and continually seek to make mining safer and we cannot rest--because no number of deaths or accidents is acceptable.
In the past 3 years we have seen some positive steps in our Nation's mine safety efforts.
As part of the Dodd-Frank bill we required publicly-traded mining companies to report safety information to their shareholders through their public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Congress provided additional funds, $22 million, for MSHA and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to reduce the appeals backlog, enforce mine safety laws and investigate the Upper Big Branch Disaster.
MSHA has also pursued increased enforcement actions through their impact inspections that target violations at unsafe mines with poor compliance history or specific safety concerns. As of March 2013, the Administration had conducted 579 impact inspections, resulting in 10,036 citations, 946 orders, and 43 safeguards.
The administration has finalized rules to improve the broken ``Pattern of Violations'' process to better pursue repeat offenders.
While we have had these improvements we also know that 97 miners have died on the job since this tragedy. That is 97 new grieving families. That is unacceptable to me, and I think to most people.
So it is clear that we must do more.
That is why today I am reintroducing my comprehensive mine safety legislation the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2013. We do incredibly important things in this bill including.
We give MSHA expanded authority to subpoena documents and testimony. Currently, MSHA does not have the authority to subpoena documents or testimony from operators outside the context of a formal, public hearing. MSHA should have this authority in the context of investigations and inspections as well as public hearings.
We provide for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents. The bill creates an independent panel, comprised of a team of independent experts, to investigate the actions of both the operator and MSHA for serious accidents, including any accident involving three or more deaths.
We strengthen whistleblower protections for miners who speak out about unsafe conditions. This bill will require one hour annually of ``miner's rights training'' to inform workers of the law's protections, give miners an express right to refuse unsafe work, expand the time limit for filing a complaint about retaliation from 60 to 180 days, and authorize punitive damages and criminal penalties for retaliation against workers who raise safety concerns.
We increase maximum penalties. Currently, criminal violations of mine safety laws are a misdemeanor for a first offense. To provide a strong deterrent for such serious misconduct, the penalties for knowing violations of safety standards will be raised to the felony level, including providing felony penalties for miners, operators, and government officials who knowingly provide advance notice of inspections.
We also increase civil penalties for making unsafe ventilation changes and violating mandatory health or safety standards for rock dusting or failing to keep the records required. These are areas of particular concern that were highlighted by investigations conducted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Governor's Independent Investigation.
We limit Miners' Exposure to Black Lung Disease. This debilitating disease is on the rise among a new generation of coal miners. Specifically, the provision would require that MSHA issue a rule within 6 months, a rule that is long overdue, to lower exposure levels to respirable dust which would provide the maximum feasible protection that is achievable through environmental controls. It would also require that MSHA reexamine the incidence of black lung disease every 5 years and, unless there is a decline in black lung, update the regulations again. More than 70 percent of the victims tested at Upper Big Branch were determined to have signs of black lung disease.
We improve Federal and State Coordination to Combat Safety Violations. The Governor's Independent Investigation Panel recommended that Federal and State agencies immediately work together to address safety problems at mines right after they are found out, and this provision would strongly encourage such actions.
I want to be very clear that I will not give up on fighting for the safety and health of our Nation's miners. Health and safety are issues that people shouldn't have to compromise on. I will continue this fight for West Virginia's miners and it is my hope that more of my colleagues will join me in these efforts.
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