Miners Detail MSHA's Failings in Emotional Testimony

On March 28, the House Committee on Education and Labor heard emotional testimony from miners and miners' families about the dangerous conditions that currently exist in the coal industry, despite recent federal legislation that addresses mine safety. The main focus of the hearing was to provide a forum for the families and miners to argue for legislative and regulatory action similar to laws recently passed in West Virginia and Kentucky and to describe conditions in the mines.

Committee Chair George Miller (D-CA) asked the witnesses to discuss what role the states have in determining the extent of mine safety and what Congress can learn from the states' efforts. In his opening remarks, Miller addressed failures to collect fines from companies violating laws and stacking the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) with industry insiders. "Under the Bush administration, MSHA has rolled back safety and health rules, and has shifted its focus away from enforcing the law and toward so-called 'voluntary compliance assistance'," Miller said.


Three witnesses from Kentucky — a miner who was fired for raising safety concerns, the wife of a deceased miner, and an attorney who has represented miners — called for expanded federal legislation similar to Kentucky's HB 207, which was passed in 2006. The legislation requires increased numbers of mine inspections, more multi-gas detectors, investigative subpoena powers and more mine emergency technicians at mining sites.

West Virginia also passed legislation in 2006 after fourteen miners were killed in two different incidents. Senate Bill 247 "mandates immediate and crucial upgrades in West Virginia's rescue technology and provides for better communication among local and state officials and mine operators when an accident occurs." Nearly all the witnesses testified that state actions are not enough, however, and that MSHA hasn't met its obligations under the law despite specific deadlines for action.

According to witnesses, many of whom sat with pictures of family members killed in mine incidents, serious dangers still exist in mines despite passage in 2006 of the federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER). Congress passed the MINER Act after seventeen deaths at the Sago and Darby mines. There were more coal miner deaths in 2006 than in any year since 1991, according to written testimony from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The UMWA, and many members who attended the hearing from West Virginia, agreed with several other witnesses who argued that MSHA has failed to protect miners since Congress created the agency in 1977.

The dangers described by the witnesses include insufficient stores of oxygen, mandatory ventilation systems and explosion-proof seals. MSHA has allowed coal companies to institute many of these safety requirements on a voluntary basis while the agency studies the restraints and, in some cases, relaxes the standards.

Several witnesses urged Congress not to allow coal industry officials to hold positions in MSHA. They also asked the Committee to have MSHA officials appear at hearings and ask questions about why the agency hasn't put regulations in place when the states have been able to move quickly in implementing new safety standards. MSHA withdrew seventeen proposed health and safety rules in 2001. Miller vowed to have both MSHA and coal company representatives appear before the Committee in subsequent hearings.

Coal companies joined MSHA as targets of the witnesses' complaints. Without adequate inspections and enforcement, companies cut corners. A Kentucky miner fired for complaining about safety violations was blacklisted in his region and said that mine safety is not any better now than when he started mining 28 years ago. Witnesses spoke of intimidation and threats for raising safety complaints, including threats to the children of a deceased miner.

The Alma mine fire in West Virginia was one of the 2006 incidents addressed at the hearing and provides an example of industry neglecting safety. Two miners were killed in the fire, after which MSHA began an investigation. MSHA has just imposed the largest fine in its history against the Alma mine owners, Aracoma Coal Company. According to a March 30 BNA story, the $1.5 million fine was levied for 25 violations of mandatory safety requirements, 21 of which were judged "reckless disregard" by MSHA. Among the violations,


Miners were not immediately notified or withdrawn when the initial carbon monoxide alarm signaled, MSHA said. Also, a required fire suppression system was not installed and there was no water available in the area to fight the fire. Airflow carried smoke from the fire into the primary escapeway because required ventilation walls had been removed.


A state investigation found 168 violations by the owners. During the investigation, the state issued 90 subpoenas. The MSHA and West Virginia investigations of the Alma fire provide examples of some of the differences between the state and federal powers and responsibilities in regulating the second most dangerous occupation in the nation.

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