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Union Boss Got It Right, But No One Was Listening

Cecil Roberts hesitated, concerned that what he was about to say might come back to haunt him. But the president of the United Mine Workers of America


Cecil Roberts hesitated, concerned that what he was about to say might come back to haunt him. But the president of the United Mine Workers of America plunged forward anyway and said that 95% of coal mine operators in this country do the right thing when it comes to mine safety.

Assuming coal operators are a representative subset, Roberts' remark can be generalized to the entire mining industry. His viewpoint was offered during a congressional committee hearing in July and came as a surprise, since the union he leads has long championed tough love for mine operators. It is too bad his comment fell on deaf ears.

Undeterred, the leadership of the House Committee on Education and Labor pushed a shockingly punitive bill, HR 5663, that targeted all mine operators. No matter that the impetus for the legislation was not just the Upper Big Branch underground coal tragedy this year but four other multi-fatality accidents that have occurred in that same mining sub-sector since 2006.

AFTER UPPER BIG Branch, Mine Safety and Health Administration boss Joe Main pledged to make reforms. At the same time, his agency said those steps would not be taken at the expense of mining sectors that responsibly protect their workers' health and safety. If MSHA had anything to do with creating the monstrosity that is HR 5663 ó and Main has testified that MSHA played a big role in its development ó then he likewise missed the message from his former boss at the UMWA.

Also oblivious to Roberts' remark was pro-union Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who issued a press release saying she heartily supported the legislation and urged swift passage.

Had the House committee and administration leadership just listened to Roberts, they might have saved themselves from the embarrassment that followed. Noncoal interests launched a grassroots lobbying effort to enlighten congressional representatives about their impressive safety achievements and lower risk profile. The effort was unique in scope and intensity in the modern era in mining.

WHEN THE SMOKE cleared, the architects of the House bill were forced to back off from the sweeping mine reform bill they had proposed. What has emerged instead is legislation that only covers underground coal and a handful of gassy metal/nonmetal operations. The measure targets the highest-risk mines, which should have been the congressional intent all along.

A week after this highly effective constituent outburst, West Virginia's senatorial delegation had the audacity to put out a carbon copy of the original House bill. This legislation is thought to be a placeholder on the Senate calendar for bipartisan mine reform legislation said to be under development in the upper chamber. If it is not, senators also will soon get a dose of reality similar to that experienced by their House colleagues.

Safety reforms in the mining industry may be needed. It is questionable, though, whether they are better accomplished by Congress through its legislative process or by MSHA through the notice-and-comment rule making. The Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission pointedly noted four years ago that some mines are so unsafe the people who run them do not deserve to be in business. Efforts to target those operators effectively should be the intent of any reform measure. Additionally, the civil case backlog is another area of mine safety that is crying out for reform.

If reformers can stick to those measures, the cruel lessons of tragedy might be turned to a beneficial purpose. But if lawmakers still haven't gotten the message that going too far is doing too much, they can expect another fearsome backlash.


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.