Deadly Blast: Lawmakers Demand Answers, But Already Know Operator Abuse of Process Threatens Miner Protections

Lawmakers from West Virginia and beyond are vowing to get to the bottom of Monday’s coal mine explosion that has left 25 dead. But just weeks ago, Congress was told how overzealous appeals of mine safety cases by mine operators threaten significant safety improvements that have been made in recent years.

The governor of West Virginia described as “horrific” the blast within the coal mine in tiny Montcoal, W.Va., which is owned by Massey Energy and reportedly has been the subject of 50 citations.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) promised to be on-site Tuesday during the rescue-and-recovery endeavors. “And I will demand answers. We will leave no stone unturned in determining how this happened and in taking action for the future,” says Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Across the Capitol, Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey made a similar guarantee. The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and chairwoman of the panel’s workforce protections subcommittee, respectively, the California Democrats released a joint statement regarding the blast at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

“Over the past few years, we have met too many family members who have suffered the tragic loss of loved ones in a mine disaster. On behalf of the committee, we promised them that we would do everything we could to learn the cause of these tragedies and to keep miners safe. Today, we extend this same promise to the families and community dealing with a devastating loss,” the statement says.

“Working with the Department of Labor and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, we intend to look into this tragedy and convene hearings at the appropriate time. However, the only job that matters right now is the job of reaching trapped miners while limiting, as much as possible, the risk to those brave rescuers,” the statement adds.

As recently as February, however, Miller’s committee received warnings about a growing backlog in mine safety cases due to recalcitrant mine owners who are appealing many more decisions in the face of stepped-up enforcement.

Mine safety inspections are up, as are citations and fines, Miller noted at that February hearing.

“This stronger emphasis on safety is saving lives and reducing injuries,” he said at the time. “In 2006, 76 miners died on the job. In 2009 that figure was reduced to 35 fatalities – still 35 deaths too many, but a record low.”

Such vigorous safety enforcement, however, has prompted mine operators mine owners to triple the number of violations they appeal and are now litigating 67 percent of all penalties. The backlog of cases that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission must review has jumped from 2,100 in 2006 to approximately 16,000 today.

Delays from growing appeals are undermining the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s ability to impose tougher penalties on repeat violators, Miller contends.

“If cases are stuck for months or years at the Review Commission, MSHA cannot impose stronger penalties for the worst mine operators,” he says. “As a result, miners’ lives are in the crosshairs. MSHA tells us that 48 mines with more than 6,000 miners would likely face tougher sanctions if not for the holdup at the Review Commission. Mine operators can be subject to progressively steeper fines or even shut down if cited multiple serious health and safety violations. And that’s the way it should be.”

The Obama administration has proposed hiring additional administrative law judges to chip away at the backlog, but more must be done, Miller said in February.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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