Mine safety rule prompted by deadly explosion faces industry blowback

It comes almost three years after the blast at Massey Energy’s Big Branch mine — the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

“It exacted a terrible toll on the nation, coal miners’ families and coal companies,” outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. “The rule we are announcing today will hold mine operators accountable when they disregard life-saving safety measures.”

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In the explosion’s aftermath, MSHA issued a scathing report finding that Massey systematically violated health and safety rules that, if followed, could have prevented the deaths.

The company “promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued productions over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law,” the report said.

The report also found that Massey used intimidation tactics to prevent miners from reporting safety violations, an issue that could be addressed through increased whistleblower protections included in the mine safety bill.

Under the new rules, MSHA can issue “pattern of violation” notices against mine operators without issuing a previous warning. Also, they can impose the distinction — which can lead to workers being removed from portions of a mine if significant violations are found — without awaiting an appeals process.

The National Mining Association (NMA) panned the rule, saying MSHA ignored the group’s concerns about the rule. Among them is the loss of mine operators’ due process when responding to a violation notice.

“Because any unsafe conditions must be remedied under current regulations, no miner is put in harm’s way if a citation is appealed,” the NMA said in a written statement. “As such, the loss of due process rights serves no safety objective.”

The group said some operators would unjustifiably be found in a pattern of violation, with little recourse.

Mine safety advocates in Congress, meanwhile, heralded the rule as a long awaited response to the West Virginia tragedy.

“I applaud the new rule,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "It is a substantial step forward that will help us address the problems at our most dangerous mines before disaster strikes."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller also commended the agency, but said more worker protections are needed. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the rule accomplishes some goals of mine safety legislation he authored after the explosion. He said he plans to reintroduce the bill soon.