Washington Update: Two years after UBB, congressional action still stalled

More than two years after the nation’s worst mining disaster since 1970, partisan disagreements surrounding how to move forward on mining legislation continue to hamper efforts to ensure a similar tragedy never occurs again.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree on a lot when it comes to the Upper Big Branch explosion, a catastrophe that killed 29 workers at the West Virginia mine on April 5, 2010. Everyone agrees the actions of mine owner Massey Energy were deplorable and well-deserving of the civil and criminal charges levied against the company. Everyone agrees some fault lies with the Mine Safety and Health Administration for failing to use all the tools at its disposal. Everyone agrees something must be done.

What that something may be is where the real disagreements begin. Democrats are pushing – and have been since the disaster occurred – for legislation that would provide MSHA with greater authority, but Republicans have been resistant to such measures.

During a March 27 hearing, members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee discussed lessons learned from the disaster.

Ranking member Rep. George Miller (D-CA) suggested companies are exploiting MSHA’s weaknesses, including its lack of subpoena powers, low civil penalties and inability to easily shut down mines in certain situations. Without action to close these loopholes, nothing will change, he said.

“We’re right back where we are before,” Miller said. “As long as Congress is going to insulate mine owners responsible for illegal behavior, I don’t care how many people we give MSHA to staff up. They are going to be playing on the short end of the field.”

Following the hearing, committee Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-MN) released a statement saying “all options” were on the table, but suggested – as he did during the hearing – that perhaps the focus should be on better mine oversight from MSHA.

During the hearing, Kline and other Republicans continually questioned MSHA administrator Joseph A. Main on allegations from a recent NIOSH report that the agency could have stopped the UBB explosion with “proper enforcement.” Main denied the suggestion, asserting MSHA would have shut down the mine had inspectors seen the conditions that directly contributed to the deadly blast – a reply that prompted a sharp rebuke from Kline.

“I am disappointed administrator Main continues to downplay his agency’s critical failures,” the congressman said. “It is long past time to stop making excuses and start providing the responsible enforcement miners deserve.”

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, noted during the hearing several shortcomings on MSHA’s part, including allowing Massey to “get away with” manipulating the law.

Roberts acknowledged that, following the explosion, MSHA has taken a much more aggressive stance and has begun to make the most of its enforcement tools. But that only goes so far, and more should be done to rein in operators who flout the law, the outspoken mine safety advocate urged.

“While it may be appropriate to criticize the mistakes MSHA made before the UBB tragedy, it would be a huge disservice to the miners who perished at UBB and to their families if that is all we did,” Roberts said. “Instead, we should think proactively and take affirmative steps to make miners safer.”

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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