By Mannix Porterfield
For the fourth time since an explosion rumbled through a Raleigh County coal mine and snuffed out 29 lives, Sen. Jay Rockefeller is trying to make the industry a safer place in which to labor.
Named after his onetime colleague, the senator titled it “The Robert C. Byrd Mine Workplace Safety and Health Act,” one that was inspired by the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Rockefeller said he was moved to sponsor the bill after a number of safety issues surfaced in the aftermath of the April 5, 2010, explosion at the mine then owned by Massey Energy, which since was bought by Alpha Natural Resources.
Nine hearings have been held on mine safety since the UBB disaster —the worst in the industry in four decades — and Rockefeller helped lead one in Beckley soon after the explosion.
“We owe it to families of the victims at Upper Big Branch and to the miners of today and tomorrow, to pass mine safety legislation that moves us more strongly ahead,” Rockefeller said Wednesday.
“Coal miners’ loved ones give thanks for answered prayers every time they walk through the front door. We should be constantly vigilant for that safe return home. We cannot wait for another tragedy before we act. The time is now.”
Only two of the UBB work crew survived the blast. The tragedy was the worst in coal mining since 38 workers perished at Finley Coal Co.’s Nos. 15 and 16 mines in Hyden, Ky., in 1970.
A major provision of the Rockefeller legislation would beef up whistleblower protections for miners who call risky work conditions to the attention of authorities.
At the Beckley hearing, UBB miners told congressional leaders they felt intimidated, and under the threat of being fired, if they spoke out against unsafe mining practices at the ill-fated mine.
Under the Rockefeller bill, miners must be given an hour’s training once a year to spell out their rights and allow them to vent about shoddy work conditions. What’s more, the bill would move from 60 days to six months the time in which to file a complaint about retaliation. It also would permit punitive damages and criminal sanctions if workers are targeted after voicing concerns over safety.
Existing law defines safety violations as misdemeanor. Rockefeller wants this elevated to felony status for knowing violations of safety standards. This would apply to miners, operators and government officials alike for tipping off mine crews about impending inspections.
Outside a formal, public hearing, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot subpoena documents and testimony. The Rockefeller bill would change this, allowing subpoena power within investigations and inspections.
In another key element of the bill, an independent investigation would be conducted in the more serious accidents to inquire into the actions of the operator and MSHA. This would apply to all incidents with three or more fatalities.
Keeping a dual set of books would be outlawed. The practice came to light in the UBB explosion, when it was revealed Massey maintained two sets and wasn’t sharing its information with MSHA.
Rockefeller also is stipulating stronger fines for unsafe ventilation with a maximum penalty of $220,000, and that MSHA must come up with a rule in six months to lower dust exposure to reverse a rise in black lung disease among a new generation of miners.
The senator also seeks to codify standards when an operator is cited for a “pattern of violation” mines found repeatedly in conflict with safety rules.
Just as Rockefeller re-introduced his bill, MSHA said eight coal miners died on the job in the first quarter of this year — four of them in West Virginia. Two of those deaths occurred within nine days at the same mine in Raleigh County.
That led to a one-hour stand down ordered by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin so that owners could refresh miners on safety rules and workplace conduct.
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