Harkin sets mine safety hearing, eyes possible legislation

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Tuesday that he’ll convene an April 27 hearing on mine safety and is exploring legislation to toughen federal oversight.

The hearing follows the explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last week that killed 29 workers. The mine had racked up a substantial number of safety violations.

Harkin said he is exploring potential legislation to toughen inspections, enforcement and penalties for mine safety violations. Harkin said specific issues he’s exploring include whether the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration should have subpoena powers.

Another issue, he said, are the frequent industry appeals of safety violations that prevent MSHA from establishing a “pattern of violations,” a finding that gives regulators authority to take tougher actions, including shutting down a mine.

“Right now, companies are gaming the system by appealing,” Harkin said. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has called for closing what he calls a "loophole" that prevents regulators from taking stronger actions while violations are under administrative appeal.

Update: Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul provides this description of the upcoming hearing:

The HELP Committee will hold a hearing on April 27th (the day before Worker’s Memorial Day) addressing the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and related workplace safety issues. This hearing will not attempt to explore the specific causes of the recent disaster since the DOL investigation will still be ongoing at the time of the hearing, but will examine the weaknesses in our laws that provide incentives for companies to ignore health and safety – such as inadequate penalties and the excessive delays that employers can create in challenging citations.  

We will also begin looking at ways to strengthen the enforcement tools available to MSHA and OSHA so that they can better enforce the law, and how to change the incentive structure so that companies no longer feel they can ignore health and safety laws with impunity.

Cyrul also said that Harkin will hold a separate hearing next month in the Appropriations Committee. Harkin is chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee that will convene the hearing.

This post was updated at 5:57 p.m. on April 13.