Failed Mining Reform Bill Might Have Prevented Tragedy

By
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 6:00 am
George Miller

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) (Zuma Press)

In 2006, after Congress passed the most significant mining reforms in three decades, a small group of Democrats offered a terse warning: The legislation, they said, didn’t go nearly far enough to prevent accidents and protect miners.

[Congress1]“Much more remains to be done to keep the nation’s miners safe,” Rep. George Miller said at the time. The California Democrat was urging additional measures designed to prevent explosions and make it easier for federal regulators to close mines when safety violations become persistent. His proposal eventually passed the House but was dropped in the Senate due, at least in part, to opposition from coal-country lawmakers, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

Four years later, as West Virginia is burying 29 of its coal miners following last week’s horrific Montcoal explosion, the calls for additional safety measures appear to be prophetic. Though the cause of that disaster might not be discovered for weeks, experts suspect that an accumulation of methane — combined with high levels of combustible coal dust — is the likely culprit. Massey Energy, the Virginia-based coal giant that owns the mine, had racked up 124 safety violations this year alone, including dozens of citations indicating problems with ventilation and the accumulation of combustibles.

Now, as investigators launch their probe into the cause of the blast — and congressional leaders are mulling their own legislative response — some lawmakers, worker advocates and mine-safety experts say they know a good place for Congress to start: Miller’s failed bill. Some even suggest that the proposal, dubbed the S-Miner Act, just might have prevented the West Virginia disaster altogether.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) — who, like Miller, opposed the 2006 reforms for being too weak — said through a spokeswoman Tuesday that Congress’ failure to pass the stronger safety measures represented “a tragic missed opportunity.”

Added Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America: “If S-Miner had been passed, [federal officials] would have had the authority to close this mine down.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

After a string of deadly coal mining accidents ravaged Appalachia in 2006, Congress stepped in to install new safety measures that were sold as the most sweeping mining-industry reforms since 1977. The bill — the 2006 Miner Act — hiked the maximum penalty for safety violations; forced mine operators to build emergency underground shelters stocked with food, water and oxygen; required installation of updated communication devices; and created stricter flammability requirements for heavy equipment and lifelines.

Yet those provisions are aimed largely at making it easier for workers to survive accidents after they occur.

“There is next to nothing in that legislation that does anything to address keeping incidents from happening in the first place,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in a statement endorsing further reforms.

Enter Miller’s S-Miner Act. That proposal would have hiked the penalties for safety violations further; strengthened the requirements for sealing mined-out chambers to prevent methane from leaking into active sections; required that metal screening be installed on all mine roofs to prevent roof falls, which can spark explosions; required studies into the effectiveness of efforts to curb the combustibility of coal dust; and, perhaps most significantly, empowered the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the Labor Department, to close problem mines more easily when patterns of safety violations are found.

In short, supporters say, it was aimed at preventing mining accidents from happening at all. And after last week’s West Virginia tragedy, “almost everything in the S-Miner Act is still needed,” said Peter Galvin, a former Education and Labor staffer who helped write the legislation.

Galvin noted another weakness in the current law: It requires MSHA officials to consider the effect of any penalty “on the operator’s ability to stay in business” – a consideration the S-Miner Act would eliminate.* “If you can’t comply with the law, you shouldn’t be in this business,” said Galvin, who was an MSHA official before joining the Education and Labor panel.

Although House Democrats passed the S-Miner bill in January 2008, the legislation never got far in the Senate, where a series of factors conspired to kill it. President Bush, for example, was waving a veto threat over the proposal, arguing that it would undermine the reforms of two years earlier. The mining industry was lobbying furiously to kill the bill. And the Senate’s lead sponsor — Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — had been newly diagnosed with the terminal brain cancer that would eventually kill him.

But there was another reason that bill didn’t move far in the Senate: The opposition of some powerful coal-country lawmakers. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), representing the coal-laden state of Kentucky, was opposed. And while Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) had officially endorsed the proposal, West Virginia’s other institutional Senate Democrat — Jay Rockefeller — rejected it.

“I’m not sure that what you do is try to pass another bill, add some more things on,” Rockefeller told the Beckley, W.Va., Register-Herald at the time, adding that the problem lies more with the failure of the MSHA to enforce the laws than with the laws themselves. “I don’t need a federal law to tell me to do my best every day,” he said.

Despite clear signs that MSHA could do more on the enforcement side of things, Rockefeller has also changed his tune in the wake of last week’s disaster. On Tuesday, he took to the Senate floor to say that enforcement alone might not be enough to prevent the next tragedy.

“Right now, what we do know is that we need to enforce aggressively the provisions of the Miner Act at all mines,” he said. “And where they are needed, we must put new laws in place.”

The saga is emblematic of the pattern that’s dictated the country’s mining policies for decades: New safety measures often follow in the wake of the biggest disasters, but rarely have lawmakers acted to anticipate those tragedies.

“It’s unfortunate, but every mine safety law we have on the books today was written in the blood of coal miners,” Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said last week.

Not that even the most ardent supporters of the S-Miner Act see it as a cure-all to the nation’s mining-safety gaps. Indeed, the bill does nothing to address the tremendous backlog of violation appeals that mining operators have filed in recent years in order to delay fines and prevent MSHA from establishing the “pattern of violations” required to close entire projects.

Lawmakers will have plenty of opportunity to examine the nation’s mining safety laws. Both Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who heads the Senate labor panel, have vowed to hold hearings on mine safety shortly. Harkin’s office said Tuesday that the Senate gathering, scheduled for April 27, will “not attempt to explore the specific causes of the recent disaster” because the White House investigation will still be ongoing. Instead, the hearing “will examine the weaknesses in our laws that provide incentives for companies to ignore health and safety — such as inadequate penalties and the excessive delays that employers can create in challenging citations.”

No dates have been set for the House hearing, Miller’s office said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a number of journalists and government watchdog groups are urging the Obama administration to open up the investigation to the public — a step the Bush administration was criticized for refusing to take.

It’s worth noting that the S-Miner bill would have required such a public investigation.

*Clarification: An earlier version indicated that the S-Miner Act also would have eliminated another factor MSHA must currently consider when levying fines: the size of the mine operator’s business. S-Miner, however, would keep that consideration in place.

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Comment posted April 14, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

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