Democrats challenge 'questionable' testimony from top coal exec

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Testifying before the Workforce Protection subcommittee earlier this month, Bumbico told lawmakers that Howard went public with the recording before notifying the company of the hazard.

"The individual questioned took a video camera underground and did a tape of seals that were leaking," Bumbico said. "Instead of calling that to the attention of mine management or instead of calling MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] and complaining about the problem, he took the videotape and brought it to a public hearing to show it."

When Miller asked directly if Howard ever informed the company of the problem, Bumbico replied, "No."

Yet that response contradicts past statements from a number of Arch supervisors, who told the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) under oath that Howard had reported the leaks to Arch numerous times. Last August, the FMSHRC ruled that Arch retaliated against Howard illegally when it issued a written warning of disciplinary action shortly following the video episode.

The discrepancy wasn't lost on Miller and Woolsey, who want Walberg to seek clarification from Arch on Bumbico's remarks.

Brian Newell, Republican spokesman for the Education and Workforce Committee, said Monday that the panel will pass the Democrats' concerns along to the company. Newell declined to comment on whether Republicans share the Democrat's suspicions that Bumbico misled lawmakers.

Arch spokeswoman Kim Link declined to comment on Bumbico's testimony, saying only that the company will respond if lawmakers ask directly for clarification. 

Miller and Woolsey also floated the notion that the committee adopt a blanket policy of swearing in all witnesses before they testify — a step that's currently left to the discretion of the presiding chairman. Bumbico was not sworn in before testifying May 4.

"This Committee has the obligation to maintain the integrity of its proceedings," the Democrats wrote. "If there is any question about the reliability of testimony, whether due to potential conflicts or otherwise, the Committee should give serious consideration to the administration of oaths to witnesses prior to their testimony." 

Miller is the senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee; Woolsey is ranking member of the Workforce Protections subpanel. 

Their letter arrives as the two parties are sparring over how to improve safety in the nation's mines following last year's deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. That blast, which is still under investigation, killed 29 workers and maimed another. 

Behind Miller, Democrats have urged Congress to adopt new mine-safety rules, including provisions to hike fines for safety hazards, expand whistleblower protections to miners, empower federal investigators to close unsafe mines more easily and grant regulators subpoena power when investigating mining accidents.

Republicans say those reforms are too tough on the coal industry and threaten vital jobs in corners of the country already struggling amid the employment crisis. Opponents also contend Congress shouldn't install new mine-safety protections before the cause of the West Virginia blast is known for sure.

In the 2010 election cycle, the coal industry gave more than $2.7 million to Republican candidates — roughly three times the $979,000 in donations to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group.

In December, the House killed Miller's proposal, which won a majority vote, 214-193, but not the two-thirds required under the rule governing the vote. Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.) was the only Republican to favor the measure; 27 Democrats opposed it.