By Mike Lillis
The House Education and Labor Committee on Thursday unveiled a long-awaited bill designed to protect the nation's miners.
The legislation — which comes in response to a deadly explosion in southern West Virginia in April — is basically identical to the outline of legislative reforms the panel released earlier in the week.
Sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the labor panel, the bill would make it easier for workers to complain about unsafe conditions; grant mine safety regulators subpoena power when conducting investigations; hike penalties for safety violations; and empower federal regulators to close unsafe mines more easily.
Miller said the reforms are necessary to rein in mine companies with a history of putting production above worker safety.
"Too many families have suffered a great loss recently as the result of callous mine operators, ineffective protections and outdated laws," Miller said in a statement Thursday. "It is time to provide effective protections to ensure that every miner is be able to return home safely to their families at the end of their shift.
"Congress has an obligation to make sure that is the case.”
Senate Democrats are supportive of similar reforms, but have yet to introduce their own bill.
Twenty-nine miners were killed and another maimed when the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine exploded on April 5. Massey Energy, which owns the project, has long had a reputation for disregarding safety procedures in the name of harvesting more coal. The UBB had racked up hundreds of safety citations prior to the blast, including violations related to ventilation problems and the accumulation of combustibles. Although investigative teams have yet to determine the cause of the blast, mine experts suspect that those conditions contributed.
Miller has scheduled a hearing on the bill on July 13. He should expect some push back from Republicans.
Earlier this week, Rep. John Kline (Minn.), senior Republican on the labor committee, said that the Democrats reforms go too far, "reshaping workplace safety policies that have nothing to do with protecting miners working underground."