CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., joined Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in introducing the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2013, legislation aimed at strengthening national efforts to protect coal miners' health and safety.
"Less than a year ago, we dedicated a memorial to the 29 lives that were lost in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster," Rahall said. "As we approach the third anniversary of that terrible tragedy, we rededicate ourselves to preventing such a catastrophe from occurring again."
The UBB tragedy was West Virginia's worst mining disaster since November 1968, when 78 miners died in an explosion at Farmington No. 9 near Fairmont at a mine owned by Consolidation Coal.
"While no piece of legislation can remove all of the dangers inherent in coal mining," Rahall said, "we have a responsibility to advance sensible improvements in our national mine health and safety program that we know can save lives."
The new legislation would strengthen a similar bill that Rahall and Miller introduced last year to close loopholes in the federal Mine Act Safety and Health Act of 1977 and subsequent laws. The bill introduced last year did not pass.
New provisions in the legislation introduced Thursday would require mine operators to maintain records of rock dust purchases so the Mine Safety and Health Administration can verify efforts made by operators to prevent the build-up of explosive coal dust.
Made from crushed limestone, rock dust counters the combustibility of coal dust -- which often has initiated larger explosions in underground mines, including the one at UBB.
Protections are expanded for whistleblowers reporting safety violations to MSHA.
The bill also requires MSHA to develop a "staffing succession plan to ensure that MSHA retains sufficient numbers of trained personnel to help keep miners safe."
The new legislation also would allow immediate family members of victims of every mine disaster to name a representative to participate in government investigations of those disasters.
Already in 2013, five coal miners have died in West Virginia.
Rahall said, "We must not wait for further loss of life from a preventable tragedy to act to bolster our mine safety laws that we know are inadequate.
"This legislation is an important step in making good on an obligation we have to the health and safety of our courageous miners and their families."
Other new provisions in the legislation would:
• Expand MSHA subpoena powers so the agency can conduct more thorough and exhaustive investigations.
• Increase penalties against any mining company official who gives employees advance notice of upcoming mine safety inspections.
• Increase the amount of rock dusting in all working areas.
• Provide for the creation of independent investigation panels appointed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Each panel would have subpoena power to look into any incident that killed three or more miners.
NIOSH investigations would include recommendations to improve regulations, inspections and enforcement.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.