Mine safety bill coming soon

The issue of mine safety returned to prominence after the Upper Big Branch disaster, which killed 29 miners. The owner of the mine, Virginia-based Massey Energy, had accumulated hundreds of safety violations in the months prior to the accident, including dozens of citations indicating ventilation problems and the presence of combustibles — the conditions suspected of causing the blast.

The accident came just a few years after Congress enacted the most sweeping overhaul of mine-safety protections in decades. The 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (Miner) Act hiked the penalties for safety violations, forced mine companies to stock emergency underground shelters with supplies and oxygen, updated mandatory communication equipment and created stricter flammability requirements for heavy machinery.

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Yet a small number of Democrats said the reforms didn't go nearly far enough to protect workers underground. 

"Much more remains to be done to keep the nation’s miners safe," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said at the time. 

Miller, who is authoring the new mine safety legislation, had pushed for additional protections. His S-Miner Act would have empowered the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a branch of the Labor Department, to close unsafe mines more easily when inspectors identify patterns of safety problems. It was designed to prevent explosions, not just to keep miners alive underground after the explosions happened. 

Although House Democrats passed the S-Miner bill in January 2008, the legislation died in the Senate. Not only was the mining industry lobbying furiously to kill the bill, but the Senate’s lead sponsor — the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — had been newly diagnosed with the terminal brain cancer that would eventually kill him. On top of that, some powerful coal country lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), opposed the bill. 

In the wake of the West Virginia mine disaster, Rockefeller is now calling for additional mine safety protections. 

Meanwhile, MSHA chief Joe Main announced Monday that the underground investigation of the Upper Big Branch blast will begin this week. Inspection teams had been unable to launch their probe due to unsafe conditions in the mine.