By Mike Lillis
The reforms arrive in direct response to an April explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., which killed 29 miners and maimed a 30th. Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blast, but the mine owner, Virginia-based Massey Energy, had violated hundreds of mine safety rules in the months leading up to the accident. Dozens of those citations targeted problems with ventilation systems and the accumulation of combustible materials — the very conditions thought to be responsible for the explosion.
Despite the problems inherent at the mine, however, MSHA officials have insisted that current law left them powerless to shutter the operation in the name of worker safety. Such claims have only fueled the Democrats' push for stricter mine safety rules.
"Mine operators who callously and repeatedly put their workers in danger must be held accountable," said Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. "It is clear that current law does not provide sufficient protections to miners who go underground every day."
In 2008, Miller was the driving force behind mine safety legislation that would have installed many of the reforms introduced Tuesday. Although the bill passed the House, it was killed in the Senate, largely due to the opposition of coal-country lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
In one sign that the latest mine safety bill might stand a better chance, Rockefeller on Tuesday threw his weight behind the new reforms, arguing that Congress shouldn't wait for the UBB investigation to act.
"Too much hurt and tragedy has touched the lives and families of hard-working coal miners in West Virginia," Rockefeller said in a statement. "We must pass laws that put a higher priority on safety day in and day out."