By Kevin Freking
Relatives of three miners killed in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch disaster reminded lawmakers Thursday that it’s been more than two years and two months since 29 miners were killed in the explosion and that now was the time for action in passing long-stalled mine safety legislation.
The relatives met with about a dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers from both chambers and said they were encouraged by the feedback they received. Nevertheless, they realize that Congress is unlikely to approve the legislation this year.
Betty Harrah of Beckley, W.Va., told reporters that she understood lawmakers needed time to evaluate the investigations conducted after the explosion to craft the right remedies. She said the visits helped to reinforce for lawmakers that lives were unnecessarily lost as a result of unsafe mining practices.
“We put their faces back in their minds,” she said, nodding to a picture of her brother Steve. “If nothing else, that’s a good thing.”
Clay Mullins, who lost his brother, Rex, at the Massey Energy Co. mine told lawmakers that legislation should increase protection for employees who report unsafe mining practices. The legislation should also enhance accountability through stiffer penalties for those employers who don’t provide a safe workplace. He said repeated violators of the law should especially face tougher penalties.
“It all comes down to greed, putting production above human life,” said Mullins, a coal miner from Pax. “That shouldn’t be tolerated in this country.”
Massey’s mines are now owed by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
The group met primarily with Democratic lawmakers who back the 2010 Robert Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act. The National Mining Association opposes the legislation, and House Republicans have so far declined to take up similar legislation.
A spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee said the committee’s chairman, Rep. John Kline, reaffirmed for the families his commitment to protecting strong mine safety protections.
“Since the 2010 tragedy, Republicans have repeatedly called on the Obama Mine Safety and Health Administration to use all the enforcement tools in the law to protect miners and to punish bad actors who jeopardize a miner’s safety,” said the spokesman, Brian Newell.
Newell added the agency has made progress in protecting miners and that “all options remain available.”
The group met with both of West Virginia’s senators. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller was less understanding about the lack of progress with the legislation.
“I have been pushing to pass my bill for two years, but we have yet to see movement. That’s absolutely unacceptable,” Rockefeller said.