Solis puts coal companies on notice

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis this week warned the mining lobby that worker safety is the industry's responsibility — and the White House won't tolerate offenders. 

"The law is clear," Solis told the executive board of the National Mining Association, an industry lobbying group. "Mine operators are ultimately responsible for the safety and health of everyone working in a mine. Period.

"We will not tolerate mines that cut corners on safety, put miners at risk, pay their fines, and view it as a cost of doing business," the California Democrat added. 

Solis was quick to note that many mine operators make worker safety the highest priority. For the others, she warned, "you need to change the way you approach mine safety — and you need to make those changes now."

The relationship between the mining industry and the White House — already chilly over the administration's steps to rein in mountaintop removal coal mining — have grown colder since April, when Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine exploded in West Virginia, killing 29 workers.

Since that disaster, the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has cracked down on safety violators, launching a series of surprise inspections and even shuttering several operations. 

Just this week, the agency tightened rock-dusting standards for coal mines — rules that aim to prevent the accumulation of highly combustible coal dust underground. 

Many in the industry, however, are pushing back against the new scrutiny. Just last week, for instance, Massey blamed its low production estimates on "increasingly stringent enforcement actions by MSHA."

Democrats are pushing legislation in both chambers that would install even more worker protections, hiking the penalties for safety violations, protecting whistleblowers who report hazards and empowering inspectors to close mines more easily.

Solis this week urged mine companies to get behind the reforms, rather than siding knee-jerk with the worst safety offenders in the industry. 

"It’s what we’ve seen repeated, time and time again – a disaster happens, the public is outraged, Congress and the regulators propose reform, and industry fights back," Solis said. "The problem with the 'industry-versus-the-government' approach, is that it lets the bad actors set the terms of the debate, and become the face of your industry.

"Any industry that tolerates bad actors," Solis said, "will ultimately find itself subject to regulations designed to target those bad actors."