CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Congressional Democrats on Tuesday released a "discussion draft" of proposed legislation they said would make it easier to shut down renegade coal operators and prevent a repeat of the April explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Supporters said the measure is aimed at beefing up the controversial "pattern of violations" enforcement process, better defending miners who speak out against unsafe practices, and generally giving the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration more tools to protect mine workers.
The legislation would update standards for the control of explosive coal dust in underground mines, a move that scientists have urged for years to replace current guidelines that are nearly a century old.
Also, the bill would mandate independent investigations by a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of all mining accidents involving three or more deaths.
If eventually made law, the legislation would be the second major overhaul of the nation's coal-mine safety law in the last four years. Congress acted in 2006 in the wake of the Sago, Aracoma and Darby disasters, and the industry is still in the midst of implementing some of those changes.
"It is clear that current law does not provide sufficient protections to miners who go underground every day," said House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif. "Today, we take the first step to ensure that the health and safety of workers are put ahead of production and profit."
West Virginia lawmakers who helped craft the proposal touted its language regarding the "pattern of violation," or POV, system, which was meant to exact tougher sanctions from mine operators that repeatedly violate safety and health rules, but has never actually been implemented against anywhere in the country.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the proposal would "tackle" the problem and "give MSHA the authority it needs to implement reforms"
"This legislation has been crafted, in large measure, to target and rein in the worst of the worst safety violators," added Rep. Nick J. Rahall, another West Virginia Democrat whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Congress gave MSHA authority more than 30 years ago to take stepped up enforcement action when mining companies repeatedly violate safety and health standards. But MSHA has either ignored this authority or written guidelines for using it that were so strict that no company has ever been placed on pattern of violation status.
After the Upper Big Branch Disaster, the pattern of violations process came under new scrutiny when MSHA admitted a computer glitch kept it from issuing a pattern of violations warning notice to the Massey mine.
Part of the legislation unveiled Tuesday simply requires MSHA to write new pattern of violation regulations, something that MSHA chief Joe Main has already said his agency is doing.
Current law requires MSHA to put mine operators on pattern of violations status if they have "a pattern of violations of mandatory health or safety standards <t40>...<t$> which are of such nature as could have significantly or substantially contributed to the cause and effect of <t40>...<t$> health or safety hazards."
Under the proposed legislation, MSHA could write its new regulations to allow POV status for "any combination of citations, orders, accidents, injuries of illnesses."
But, the proposed bill also allows MSHA to disqualify a mine from POV status for "mitigating circumstances" that have eliminated elevated risk to mines' safety and health.
The legislation also proposes increased inspections for mines put on POV status, and would require mine operators on that status to pay fees to MSHA to fund those additional mine visits. MSHA would also be required to create a new public database of pattern of violation information.
Other provisions in the legislation would more than double civil penalties for significant violations to a maximum of $150,000 and increase maximum criminal penalties from $250,000 and one year in prison to $1 million and five years in prison.
U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, ranking Republicans on the Senate Labor Committee, criticized the Democrats for offering "a sweeping piece of legislation" that "only amplifies the adversarial role" of MSHA "without increasing safety."
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said her group is still reviewing the legislation, but noted that MSHA "has several enforcement tools that have not been fully utilized." United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith said the union is still studying the proposal.
The legislation includes several measures added at industry's behest, including language giving mine operators a specific ability to challenge MSHA's refusal to approve company proposals for mine ventilation and roof control and providing additional training and compliance assistance for companies with repeated violations.
"We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to find bipartisan support for workers," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "These policy ideals start with dialogue."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.