Congress to probe mine explosion

Lawmakers dispatched aides to West Virginia on Tuesday to investigate the deadliest mine disaster in more than 20 years, launching what is likely to be a new round of questions about the adequacy of mine-safety laws.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, sent two committee staff aides to the Upper Big Branch South mine near Montcoal, W.Va., where a methane explosion killed 25 miners and left four more missing and thought dead.

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It was the worst mine accident since 1984.

One committee aide was dispatched on Monday and an additional investigator was sent Tuesday. Miller and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Workforce Protections subcommittee, pledged Tuesday to hold hearings on the Upper Big Branch accident.

Miller’s committee oversees the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the main federal regulator over coal mines like Upper Branch.

As committee chairman, Miller has pressed for additional mine-safety reforms beyond the requirements of legislation approved in 2006 following an explosion in the Sago mine in West Virginia that killed 12 workers.

Miller’s bill passed the House in 2008 but stalled in the Senate in part because its main champion, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), fell ill.

Other members of Congress also promised to investigate the disaster.

“We will look for inadequacies in the law and enforcement practices, and I will work to fix any we find,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a statement.

Mine explosions are often caused by a buildup of methane; safety rules require ventilation systems to reduce levels of the gas.

News reports said the mine, operated by a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., had been cited for several violations relating to proper ventilation.

The company defended its record as one of the safest in the industry.

“Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families,” Massey CEO Don Blankenship said. “We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies.”

The legislation would also require the MSHA to implement a task force’s recommendations to force mine operators to use newer conveyor belts that carry materials out of the mine, according to a House Labor Committee summary. The belts have come under scrutiny as a safety risk.

The bill would also toughen ventilation requirements.

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers Union, said it was too early to say whether measures in Miller’s bill would have prevented Monday’s deadly blast.

But he noted language intended to strengthen MSHA’s ability to go after companies that repeatedly violate safety laws and face outstanding fines.

“That may have been useful in this case,” Smith said.

“Hopefully there will be renewed interest in moving forward with something,” he added.

Kevin Book, an analyst at Clear View Energy Partners, said the explosion and greater Democratic control of the House and Senate improves the prospects for Miller’s bill or a stricter measure.

Mining companies largely supported the legislation passed in 2006. Among the changes, the act gave mine operators three years to install two-way communications to give miners a link to the surface should they get trapped underground. The act also raised the fines for safety violations.

The National Mining Association (NMA), which supported the 2006 bill, later opposed Miller’s supplemental measure.

Carol Raulston, an association spokeswoman, said the legislation would have created confusion and could have delayed safety improvements and hampered worker safety training.

Book said Miller’s bill would also raise operating expenses for mining companies and could force some smaller operators out of business. For example, the installation of flame-retardant conveyor belts could cost the industry $600 million, according to a Clear View analysis.

Raulston said any regulatory response to the most recent mine disaster should wait for the preliminary results of the investigation.

“Right now so little is known about what started the explosion and why it was so deadly,” she said. Raulston added, though, that mine officials did not believe anything in Miller’s bill would have prevented the explosion.

Federal regulators have said the mine met the requirements of the 2006 mine safety act, including the development of “rescue chambers” for trapped miners and improved communications systems between the mine workers and the surface, Raulston said.

In addition to condolences to the families of the Upper Branch mine blast, the website of the NMA provides a link to federal statistics that show mine accidents have dropped significantly in recent years. There were 73 fatalities reported in 2006; that number had dropped to 53 deaths in 2008 and 35 in 2009, 18 of which happened in coal mines, according to preliminary data.