New focus on mining dangers won’t save mine safety legislation

The rescue of 33 Chilean miners captured the world’s attention and reminded the public of the dangers of mining, but mine safety legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has little prospect of passing.



The bill would give whistle-blower protection to non-union miners, increase criminal penalties for mine operators who tamper with safety equipment, require swift remedy of hazardous conditions and expand the power for federal mine safety investigators to issue subpoenas. 



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Democrats thought this summer the legislation had a good chance of passing but talks broke down in mid-September.


It now appears the legislation will have to wait until next year, when Republicans are expected to have bigger majorities in the Senate and House.



A Senate Democratic leadership aide cast doubt on the likelihood that the mine safety legislation would be on the list of about 20 bills that are up for consideration during the lame-duck session.



The bill is a top priority of Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, but Senate Democratic leaders must deal with other legislation they see as more pressing.



Their list includes the defense authorization bill, which includes a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”; an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that are set to expire; an omnibus or stop-gap spending bill; an extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a freeze in scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare reimbursements; and a package of tax extenders.



The mine safety legislation was derailed by objections from Senate Republicans, according to Rockefeller and other negotiators.



Last month, Rockefeller told reporters that Republican staff balked at all attempts to reach compromise. He said the bill might be considered during the lame-duck session but that possibility now seems remote.



“There was an excellent chance of passing it if the Senate Republicans decided to negotiate in good faith,” said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director, who worked on the bill. “They were essentially carrying water for the coal industry and not agreeing to anything.


“I think they’re talking about of both sides of their mouths,” Samuel said of Senate Republicans. “I don’t think they’re interested at all in mine safety legislation moving this year.”



A spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the lead Republican negotiator, did not respond to requests for comment.



Rockefeller and interim West Virginia Sen. Carte Goodwin (D) tried to bring the mine safety bill to the Senate floor on Sept. 28 to set a “benchmark” for what mine safety legislation should include.



Republicans, however, blocked the effort.


Rockefeller argues immediate action is necessary to avert disasters such as the explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in April.



“I was there with the families as we hoped and prayed for any sign that their loved ones would make it out,” he said. “It is something that no family should have to go through.”



While Democrats in Washington blame Republicans for blocking the bill, Gov. Joe Manchin (D) has not made the federal bill much of an issue in his Senate race against John Raese.


“It’s really hard to get the candidates on the record talking about the mine safety legislation,” said Steven Allen Adams, political reporter for West Virginia Watchdog. “Hard to get them to talk about the mine legislation in anything other than generalities.”



“The race seems to be coming down to the ‘hicky’ ad,” Adams said, in reference to a controversial ad commissioned by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The casting call for the ad sought actors with what it described as a hicky, blue-collar look, prompting denunciations from Democrats.



The West Virginia Coal Association has endorsed Manchin, who has received $81,000 in contributions from political action committees and individuals associated with mining or mining supply companies, according to West Virginia Watchdog.



Raese owns coal mines as the chairman of Greer Industries.



Manchin’s campaign aired an ad last month that touted his record on mine safety and attacked Raese as “bad for mine workers,” citing almost $100,000 in fines and more than 600 safety violations at his mines.



Greer Industries, which Raese’s family has owned for three generations, has disputed Manchin’s charges. 



J. Robert Gwynne, executive vice president of the company, has pointed to state and federal safety awards and said “the safety of our miners and all of our employees has been, is, and will continue to be our first priority."