Dems decry lack of action on mine safety

Congressional action to strengthen mine safety is "long overdue," Democrats with jurisdiction over worker protections said Thursday on the second anniversary of the nation's deadliest mining accident in 40 years.

The explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine was made possible by unsafe practices by the Massey Energy Company and understaffed federal regulators' failure to properly inspect the mine, the Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a report last month. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, and panel member Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said in a statement Thursday that "[t]he imperative to close loopholes in our nation's mining laws remains with us and many of our colleagues."

"There were many tears shed at the time and proclamations made from elected officials to honor the dead by taking all actions necessary to prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again," they said. "But, two years later, as the headlines and national attention have faded, we are in danger of losing the sense of urgency that is so often essential to moving legislation to keep miners safe."

The two Democrats are co-authors of mine safety legislation that would hike the penalties 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. The bill died in the House in December 2010, largely along party lines.

"We know from the four investigation reports and MSHA’s internal review, that the entire system failed these miners: Massey put production ahead of safety, exploited weaknesses in MSHA that were a product of irresponsible budget cuts enacted by previous Congresses, and gamed weak mine safety laws," the lawmakers said. "From these reports we know that our mine safety laws must be reformed."

The panel's chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), held a hearing with top mine safety regulator Joe Main last week.

"Two years ago, the people of Montcoal, West Virginia suffered a horrific loss as the worst mining disaster in four decades took the lives of 29 men. It was an unthinkable tragedy that should never have happened," Kline said in a statement Thursday afternoon. "Massey Energy put profit before safety, while federal safety officials failed to hold this reckless operator accountable. Mine operators have a legal and moral responsibility to make safety the top priority, and enforcement officials have a duty to enforce the law. As a nation, we mourn the men who died, keep their families in our prayers, and continue the work that is needed to ensure this kind of catastrophe never happens again."

Update: This post was updated at 1:45 p.m. with comment from Rep. Kline