CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Corporate officials who control safety practices at coal mines could be more easily held accountable for violations and accidents, under legislation introduced Friday in the U.S. House.The legislation, introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., would broaden the definitions of mine operators and their agents for the purposes of civil violations and criminal sanctions.Miller said information uncovered so far in the investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster shows the need for the legislation, which is named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
"The Upper Big Branch Disaster laid bare the loopholes that riddle our mine safety laws," said Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. "These loopholes allow dubious mine operators like Massey Energy to violate mine safety rules repeatedly with impunity."There are things we must do right now so that every miner is able to return home safely to their families at the end of their shift," Miller said. "Congress can't simply wait for the next tragedy to act."The legislation is similar to bills that failed to pass last year in the House and Senate, and to legislation introduced in the Senate earlier this year by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.The House version is co-sponsored by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine."We owe it to our miners -- those living and those we have lost -- to continue to advance sensible improvements to our national mine health and safety program," Rahall said Friday.Like earlier versions of the bill, the new legislation aims to rewrite the existing "pattern of violations" law and give the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration authority to subpoena witnesses for private accident investigations. Currently, MSHA can issue subpoenas only if it decides to hold public hearings, which the agency has declined to so in the case of Upper Big Branch.The legislation would update standards for control of explosive coal dust underground, a move that scientists have urged for years, but that has gained new attention following Upper Big Branch.It would also seek to hold MSHA more accountable by mandating independent investigations by a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health panel for major mining accidents.This year's bill toughens the language for criminal prosecutions of anyone who provides advance warning of MSHA inspections."Though we are still awaiting final reports from the investigations into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, we already know many of the key factors that contributed to that disaster," Rahall said. "We ought not continue to wait to close the known gaps in the mine safety system that would allow another similar disaster to occur."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.