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Dems Go It Alone On Mine Reform

While we may restrain our emotions until we learn what really happened beneath the ground in West Virginia, there was no holding back over the congressional


While we may restrain our emotions until we learn what really happened beneath the ground in West Virginia, there was no holding back over the congressional response to the Upper Big Branch tragedy. On June 29, the House Committee on Education and Labor introduced a mine reform bill, which cosponsors said was aimed at targeting recalcitrant mine operators.

Turns out, it is much more than that. Every mine operator will fall under the certification provision, the extra hour of refresher training on miners' rights, the interest-bearing account for contested penalties, the inflexibility required of the review commission in setting final orders regarding penalties, and, most importantly, the change in what constitutes a significant and substantial violation.

Fortunately, Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), realizing that he did not have the votes, agreed to amend the bill to remove all mines except underground coal and underground gassy metal/nonmetal mines and their surface operations. That measure passed the committee on a party-line vote July 21.

Still, we're left to wonder why Congress chose to punish an entire industry for the sins, if they are that, of a single company. The 2006 Miner Act was presented as an effort to address emergency response, and it did. But lawmakers still managed to slip in provisions that potentially affected everyone. That they were at it again means that original 2010 bill was crafted with zero input from operators and from the minority political party. The legislation reflected a one-sided, union-biased belief that all operators will cut corners on safety and health when given a chance and, therefore, need to be punished with more regulations and stiffer fines.

We appreciate that Congress cares enough about mine safety and health that, after a catastrophe, it wants to help. But assistance is unwanted when it tries to address mine accidents before the cause is identified. Nor can an outstretched hand be accepted when those who offer it hold to a process that leaves key stake-holders out in the cold.

Involving the people who actually run the mines also helps limit unintended consequences, of which there would have been plenty had this legislation passed. And cutting this group out virtually guarantees their opposition, which in this instance was crucial to severely restricting the scope of the measure.

MINE OPERATORS WILL not soon forget the large role the Mine Safety and Health Administration played in writing it. MSHA has a big stake in the outcome of the Upper Big Branch tragedy. If culpability is uncovered, some of it may fall on the agency's shoulders. But the provision mandating that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conduct certain accident investigations independent from those of MSHA is the measure's only suggestion of regulatory accountability.

MSHA is already one of the most powerful federal regulatory authorities. Yet the bill would have given it more legal ìumph.î Even the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who had a hand in mining legislation for a half century and steered tens of millions of dollars to MSHA, said after Upper Big Branch that the agency had all the resources it needs.

Minority lawmakers were quick to criticize the bill and for good reason. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) suggested MSHA's inability to fill key spots at headquarters with permanent appointees may very well have created conditions conducive to the tragedy. Another Republican remarked that the Democrats had abdicated their oversight responsibility by bestowing more muscle on the agency without first questioning its performance. A computer glitch that kept Upper Big Branch off MSHA's potential Pattern of Violation list and recent Inspector General reports about training deficiencies among inspectors and a short-circuited POV process left many questioning the agency's competence.


James Sharpe holds a masters degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene. He has nearly 30 years experience in occupational and environmental health and safety. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.