By Mannix Porterfield
Cooking the books to shield unsafe conditions in underground mines from federal gumshoes and higher penalties for faulty ventilation are two key elements in Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s revised bill, inspired by the Upper Big Branch explosion that left 29 miners dead in Raleigh County.
Rockefeller would ban the practice of keeping two sets of books, one with the true account of mine hazards, the other one doctored to keep federal and state inspectors from knowing the real conditions underground.
“The catastrophe at Upper Big Branch was a wakeup call that not enough was being done to protect our coal miners,” Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Thursday.
“In the two years since that terrible day, we’ve made some progress, but major reforms are still desperately needed and continue to be stalled by opponents.”
To date this year, he pointed out, mining accidents have claimed 20 workers.
“And even one death is too many,” the senator said.
“We cannot — and we dare not — forget our obligation to miners, their families and our West Virginia communities.”
An explosion shook the sprawling Upper Big Branch mine complex on April 5, 2010, in the town of Montcoal, in the worst accident in the industry in four decades.
Upper Big Branch was operated by Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of the former Massey Energy, which since the tragedy has been absorbed by Alpha Resources.
Two one-time Upper Big Branch employees already have criminal records on charges lodged after federal prosecutors got involved in the disaster.
Gary May, a former superintendent, faces sentencing Aug. 9 after pleading guilty to a charge of defrauding the federal government involving his mine duties.
The other official, Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, is appealing his convictions of lying to federal authorities and ordering an underling to eliminate Upper Big Branch documents. His attorney, William Wilmoth, characterized the U.S. Attorney’s Office case against his client as “a total lack of evidence.”
In a briefing for the media by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in Beckley, officials disclosed that Massey maintained two sets of books at Upper Big Branch, and that the practice wasn’t uncommon in the industry.
Rockefeller said he included a ban on this based on the recommendations by the United Mine Workers of America, which led its own investigation into the disaster.
Fines as high as $225,000 could be imposed on operators for “flagrant violations” of ventilation problems that expose miners to explosions. The MSHA report concluded the Upper Big Branch blast entailed a massive buildup of coal dust.
Another issue deals with a long-running health matter — black lung.
Rockefeller wants MSHA to provide a rule in six months to lower exposure levels to respirable dust. What’s more, the agency would be obligated to re-examine the incidence of the ailment every five years. The senator noted that more than 70 percent of the 29 victims at Upper Big Branch tested positive for black lung.
Another new wrinkle in the updated bill calls for up-to-date safety training and information about conditions underground for workers, operators and regulators.
Adding his support to the bill, Sen. Joe Manchin, also D-W.Va., met recently with families of the victims and said he came away with a feeling that patience is growing thin on beefing up safety.
“Well, let me tell you that we’re all tired of hearing simple rhetoric,” he said.
“We have been talking about these reforms for far too long. It’s time for all of us to sit down together, to put our parties and our politics aside and do the right thing for the safety of our miners.”
Rockefeller re-introduced the earlier provisions, such as expanding MSHA’s authority to subpoena documents and testimony, creating an independent panel to look into serious accidents, beef up protections for whistleblowers, and elevate criminal penalties, which now are a misdemeanor for first offense, to a felony level if the violators knowingly tipped off crews about an impending inspection.
“The wounds from this heart-breaking disaster are still very fresh, and will never fully heal,” Rockefeller said.
“But we have a deep and continuing obligation to make sure that miners — and all workers — can go to work, do their jobs, and return home safely to their families at the end of the day.”
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