Mine safety, black lung bills reintroduced in Congress

AP file photo
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

On the seventh anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, congressional Democrats reintroduced legislation aimed at better protecting the health and safety of coal miners and reforming the program that provides benefits to victims of black lung disease.

The bills were introduced in the Senate by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., and in the House of Representatives by Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Matt Cartwright, D-Pa.

“On this sad anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, we are reminded that no family or community should ever endure a preventable tragedy like the one at Upper Big Branch again,” Manchin said. “The health and safety of our miners will always be our top priority.”

One of the bills, the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act, would allow miners or their survivors to reopen their cases if they had been denied black lung benefits through practices used by the mining industry and its lawyers and doctors that involved withholding or manipulating key medical evidence.

“Black lung is a debilitating, often fatal disease,” Cartwright said. “Thousands of coal miners develop black lung, yet coal companies exploit federal loopholes to avoid compensating them. We must reform the claims process to ensure these hard-working miners and their families receive the benefits they deserve. This bill would help miners obtain unbiased medical evidence, ample legal representation and up-to-date benefit payments adjusted to cost-of-living increases.”

The other bill, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, aims to strengthen safety standards to avoid a repeat of disasters like the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

“Coal miners and their families deserve action on safety and benefits, not more talk,” Casey said. “We owe them honest health and safety protections. It’s time we enforce meaningful, commonsense protections that every worker deserves.”

Among other things, the legislation would make criminal violation of a mine safety standard a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million, if the violation “recklessly exposes a miner to a significant risk of serious injury, serious illness or death.

After the criminal conviction of Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO’s sentence of one year in prison highlighted the fact that mine safety crimes currently are misdemeanors, with Blankenship being sentenced to the maximum prison sentence allowed under existing law. Efforts to increase the penalties for mine safety crimes have languished in Congress for several years. Blankenship was serving time in a California prison, but has been moved to a halfway house in Arizona and is scheduled for release on May 10.

Scott said that the bill would “deliver stronger criminal penalties needed to deter operators who knowingly operate outside the margins of safety and recklessly expose miners to serious risk of injury or death.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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