Rockefeller renews mine safety push with revised bill

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is floating revised legislation aimed at toughening mine safety rules and oversight in the wake of the April 2010 explosion at a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 workers.

Rockefeller has floated versions of the bill several times since the blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. Massey was acquired last year by Alpha Natural Resources.

Here’s what Rockefeller’s office had to say Thursday about the bill:

In the two years since the Upper Big Branch tragedy, both Congress and the administration have enacted some targeted laws and regulations to improve the health and safety of coal miners. However, comprehensive legislation still is needed to achieve important safety improvements, including those specifically recommended by West Virginia miners’ families and investigations into the Upper Big Branch disaster.

The revised bill contains several new provisions including a prohibition on mine operators from keeping two sets of books; new penalties for unsafe changes in mine ventilation; and a deadline for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to issue rules that lower exposure to respirable dust in order to combat black-lung disease.

House GOP appropriators are trying to block the MSHA rule, alleging it would harm the coal industry and the economy.

The bill also retains measures included in previously introduced legislation.

The many provisions include expanded subpoena power for MSHA; toughened whistleblower protections for miners; a new independent panel to probe mining accidents that kill more than three people; increased criminal penalties for violating mine safety laws; and several other measures that toughen MSHA’s power to take action against unsafe mines.

Rockefeller chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. His co-sponsors are Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, as well as Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

While the lawmakers are continuing to press ahead with the legislative push, it faces an uphill climb in the Senate, let alone the GOP-controlled House.

“The catastrophe at Upper Big Branch was a wake-up call that not enough was being done to protect our coal miners,” Rockefeller said in a statement Thursday. “In the two years since that terrible day we’ve made some progress, but major reforms are still desperately needed and continue to be stalled by opponents.”