House GOP delays mine-safety hearing to wait for internal review

House Republicans have delayed a mine-safety hearing until the Labor Department issues findings on the government's role in a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine almost two years ago.

In December, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, tentatively planned a Feb. 7 hearing on 2010's Upper Big Branch (UBB) disaster — a response to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) damning report that the mine owner, Massey Energy, systematically violated federal safety standards that might have prevented the blast.

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But that date has been pushed, Kline's office said this week, to ensure that Labor's probe of the government's role in the tragedy can be included in Congress's examination.

"We believe the internal review of MSHA’s actions regarding the Upper Big Branch explosion is an important piece of the puzzle and should be considered by the committee," Kline spokesman Brian Newell said in an email. "We hope to receive the internal review as soon as possible so the committee can schedule the hearing and move forward in a [responsible] way."

The internal review could surface any day. A Labor Department spokesperson said Thursday that the report is expected "within two to three months after release of accident investigation report," which was released Dec. 6.

Still, news of the delay wasn't welcomed by some Democrats, who have pushed hard for tougher mine-safety laws since the UBB blast killed 29 miners in April 2010.

Told of the delay, Rep. Nick Rahall (D), who represents the West Virginia district that's home to the UBB mine, rolled his eyes. 

"Absurd, absurd and absurd," Rahall charged. "We should be beyond that."

Rahall said the Republican strategy is simply "to delay, delay, delay" in hopes the public forgets about the disaster — and the pressure wanes on Congress to enact reform. 

"We have the results of investigations now in hand," he said. 

In their December report, MSHA investigators found that Massey, in the lead-up to the UBB explosion, "promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law."

In response, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member the Workforce Committee, introduced legislation to hike penalties for safety violations, expand whistleblower protections for miners who report hazards and grant subpoena power to federal inspectors investigating accidents. The bill passed out of the committee in 2010, when the Democrats controlled the House, but failed to win the two-thirds support to pass on the floor later in the year.

Republicans have resisted new mine-safety legislation, arguing that Congress shouldn't intervene before the cause of the blast is known. GOP leaders have warned that tougher rules governing mines could kill jobs amid an unemployment crisis.

Rahall refuted the idea that the Democrats' bill is overly burdensome on the industry.

"It's not our desire to punish those who are doing good, who are doing right by safety," Rahall said. "But it's our desire to ensure that what happened at the Upper Big Branch in my district does not happen again. 

"The best that we could do is to ensure that they did not die in vain."