Dem senator warns lack of funding could limit progress on improving mine safety

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is raising questions about whether the federal agency charged with mining safety is adequately funded.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Rockefeller said he is concerned that the Senate’s inability to pass an omnibus spending bill that would have increased funding for mine safety could “undermine the progress that is being made and further limit MSHA's [Mine Safety and Health Administration] ability to fulfill its mission.”

Instead of the broad omnibus spending bill, the Senate passed a narrow continuing resolution that largely funds the government at current levels until March. That resolution includes $22 million to address mine-safety issues. 

Rockefeller's letter comes amid reports that 48 people have died in U.S. coal mining accidents this year.

In the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in April, the MSHA, housed within the Department of Labor, has been working to institute new safety rules.

Rockefeller requested that Solis outline the department’s funding needs after the current continuing resolution runs out “in order to make sure that there are no lapses in enforcement or other activities that keep our miners safe.”

He also called on MSHA officials to meet with the families of those killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster to update them on the status of the agency’s investigation into the incident.

“It has come to my attention that family members of the victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster have not received a briefing from MSHA on the status of the investigation since September,” Rockefeller said. “Three months is too long for these families to wait for information, which is why I request that MSHA meet with these families as soon as possible, and that you provide me with the expected date that this briefing will occur.”

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Secretary Solis,
 
I am writing to request an update on the Department of Labor's (DOL) activities relating to several critical mine safety issues.  It is heartbreaking to know that this year alone there have been sixty-nine mining fatalities in twenty different states, with more than half of those fatalities occurring in West Virginia.
 
I appreciate the work that you and Assistant Secretary Joe Main have done to provide our nation's brave miners with a safer workplace, and I hope to continue working with you towards that goal.  We must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent unnecessary injuries and illnesses and prevent further loss of life.
 
Upper Big Branch Investigation
 
West Virginians are still struggling to heal from the scars left as a result of the Upper Big Branch disaster, which took the lives of twenty-nine miners on April 5, 2010.  We know that there are several areas of the law that need to be fixed in order to prevent future tragedies like this, many of which are reflected in my legislation, The Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2010.
 
But I also know that, in addition to improving our laws and regulations, West Virginians are looking for answers as to what directly caused this disaster.  I believe that the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) investigation into this tragedy will shed light on this issue. An important part of that investigation is keeping the families informed.  It has come to my attention that family members of the victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster have not received a briefing from MSHA on the status of the investigation since September.  Three months is too long for these families to wait for information, which is why I request that MSHA meet with these families as soon as possible, and that you provide me with the expected date that this briefing will occur.  Further, I would also request an update on the status of MSHA's investigation, including when we can expect the investigation to be completed.
 
Pattern of Violations
 
Since the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster, I have been convinced that reforms to the Pattern of Violations (POV) process are necessary to prevent some operators from repeatedly violating our laws.  I am encouraged that MSHA has moved forward to reform and re-implement the POV process, which has resulted in fourteen mines with persistent safety problems being placed onto a potential POV.  Because this is such an important issue for the continued safety of miners, I request that you continue to keep me informed about the implementation of these new criteria and whether the mines involved have instituted corrective action programs to improve safety and your assessment as to whether each mine is, in fact, sufficiently improving its safety.
 
I also look forward to reviewing MSHA's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the POV process in January 2011.  I will provide detailed comments at that time; but as an initial matter, I request that MSHA seriously consider two important reforms that are contained in my legislation and are necessary for an effective POV system.  First, MSHA should eliminate the requirement that only final orders of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) can be considered when identifying mines for POV.  Litigation and backlogs should not be allowed to delay safety.  Second, MSHA should establish concrete remediation plans that POV mines must follow in order to improve safety.  This provision is necessary to make sure that we are actually keeping miners safe, rather than just imposing sanctions on operators.
 
Funding Needs
 
Making sure that DOL and MSHA have the resources necessary to effectively enforce our mine safety and health laws must be a top priority for Congress in the coming months and years.  The $22 million that was provided in the Supplemental Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 (Public Law 111-212) to reduce the backlog at FMSHRC and investigate the Upper Big Branch disaster, was an important step.  However, I am very concerned that Congress' inability to pass the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 2011, which would have provided important increases in funding for mine safety, will undermine the progress that is being made and further limit MSHA's ability to fulfill its mission.  Therefore, I request that you provide me with details of DOL's and MSHA's funding needs beyond the expiration of the Continuing Resolution on March 4, 2011, in order to make sure that there are no lapses in enforcement or other activities that keep our miners safe.
 
In closing, I again would like to thank you and Assistant Secretary Main for your unwavering commitment to the men and women who work in our coal fields.  I look forward to continuing to work with you on this most important issue.

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