Mining Firms Complain Democrats’ Safety Bill Too Harsh

By | July 15, 2010

The nation’s top mine safety official urged quick passage this week of a bill that would crack down on mines with safety problems, despite industry complaints that the legislation is too punitive.

Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main told lawmakers the bill would bring “a culture of safety” to the industry following the deaths of 29 workers in April at a West Virginia mine with a troubling history of violations.

“When you have miners who go to work and leave notes for their families that they may not come home from work, I think that’s a dire situation,” Main said.

But National Mining Association spokesman Bruce Watzman said the legislation imposes stiffer penalties without correcting fundamental problems, such as inadequate training and high turnover of mine inspectors.

“Won’t adding more punitive and complex requirements aimed at mine operators only put more weight on an unstable foundation?” Watzman said at a hearing before the House Committee on Education and Labor.

It was the first hearing on sweeping legislation that Democrats want to pass by year end to help protect the nation’s 350,000 miners. The bill would boost penalties for serious violations, give mine regulators greater power to shut down mines with repeated violations and increase protection for whistleblowers who report safety problems.

One of the most significant changes would make it easier for mine safety officials to determine that a mine has a pattern of serious safety violations that warrants greater government oversight and higher penalties. Under the bill, government officials could find such a pattern without waiting months or years while a mine owner uses the legal process to challenge violations.

The Upper Big Branch mine, where the explosion occurred earlier this year, had been repeatedly cited for ventilation and dust buildup problems before the blast. But many of those violations were under appeal, a tactic MSHA officials blame for delaying greater scrutiny.

“The Upper Big Branch mine is the perfect example of how current law is inadequate, especially for those operations that do everything to flout the law,” said California Rep. George Miller, the committee’s chairman.

The bill offers the most comprehensive changes to mine laws since safety legislation passed following the 2006 Sago mine disaster.

Patricia Smith, the Labor Department’s chief lawyer, said she did not expect the changes to increase the already massive backlog of mine safety cases. She said it could even decrease litigation because it would simplify the definition of what constitutes a serious safety violation.

Watzman said the industry agrees the law on patterns of violation needs to be fixed, but he and Republicans on the committee complained the bill doesn’t address problems such as MSHA’s poor allocation of resources and inconsistent enforcement of rules. Both issues were highlighted in a recent report by the Labor Department’s inspector general.

Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the panel’s top Republican, also criticized the bill for boosting penalties for other workplace violations governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The bill would further require businesses subject to OSHA to fix major violations, even if the employer disagrees and decides to mount a legal challenge.

“The bill before us today is a missed opportunity to learn the lessons from Upper Big Branch and a clumsy attempt to drive up workplace litigation in the name of safety,” Kline said.

OSHA head David Michaels said OSHA laws have not been significantly updated in 40 years. He said most companies fix violations immediately, but the bill focuses on “those employers who don’t want to do the right thing and where people could get hurt.”

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