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Upper Big Branch

April 5, 2013

Three years ago today (April 5), 29 miners died in the massive Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Several members of Congress released statements today about what is being done to improve mining safety.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who was the state’s governor at the time of the disaster, noted he is attempting to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make changes to ensure disasters such what occurred at Upper Big Branch would not happen again:

“I want to assure those families, the people of our state and this country that we’re absolutely and totally committed to the safety of every mining worker. Our miners should wake up in the morning and expect to come home safely to their loved ones at night.”

Some of that effort has been taken up by House Democrats. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) is one of 18 representatives sponsoring legislation to strengthen the Mine Safety and Health Administration:

“I am committed to the difficult, necessary fight for safer mines and I have, again, introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to achieve that goal. It is not enough merely to think back, to mourn, and to wish. That does not do justice to those we have lost. We must act.”

Like other similar bills in previous congresses, the bill was referred to the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Chair of that committee Rep. John Kline (R-MN) placed the blame for the incident mostly on the mine operator and failures of MSHA to use its available tools:

“A reckless mine operator and a failure of safety enforcement contributed to the worst mining disaster in 40 years. … Mining is dangerous work, but it shouldn’t be deadly. Efforts to strengthen federal mine safety protections continue.”

But such efforts are not expeditious enough for some of Kline’s colleagues. A joint statement from Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Joe Courtney (D-CN), ranking members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and Workforce Protections Subcommittee, respectively, said:

“Miners’ jobs are not sufficiently protected for speaking up on dangerous conditions. MSHA still lacks subpoena power for inspections and investigations and has asked Congress for added authority to shut down mines with chronic safety records in a timely manner. Efforts three years ago to make these changes bumped up against a clock and the usual special interest. Since then, Congress has not moved any mine safety reform. The inaction is shameful.”

It should be noted that MSHA has taken steps (.pdf file) since the disaster to make more use of its tools. Whether that is enough to prevent future large-scale mining disasters remains to be seen. I really hope that it is.

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

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