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MSHA pressed for answers in wake of mining disaster

Follow mine safety news on Coal Tattoo: CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The nation's top mine safety official on Tuesday promised to step up efforts to crack down on renegade coal operators, including for the first time ever taking companies directly to court to shut down mines for repeated safety violations.

Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said his agency will also be asking Congress to give it new authority -- such as subpoena power and tougher criminal penalties -- in the wake of the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

"Changes are needed," Main told lawmakers. "Fatalities at coal mines can be prevented. Explosions at coal mines can be prevented."

Lawmakers questioned why MSHA didn't use all of the tools it already has to stop safety problems at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.

And during the first in a series of congressional hearings expected this year about the Massey disaster, a leading safety advocate urged lawmakers to consider more reforms in the wake of the fifth major coal-mining accident since 2006.

"Five coal mining disasters in barely four years is not only a crisis, it is a national disgrace," said Wes Addington, a coal miner's son who now represents miners for the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called Tuesday's hearing of his Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, to take testimony on how to strengthen safety enforcement in dangerous workplaces. Two of the hearing's four panels of speakers focused on coal-mine safety and the Upper Big Branch disaster.

Main rattled off a list of enforcement actions taken by MSHA in the months prior to the April 5 explosion, including more than 1,800 hours of inspections in 2009 alone and dozens of serious citations and enforcement orders.

"These tragic events followed a year-long effort by MSHA to use the tools we had available to force Massey Energy to comply with the law and turn around its extensive record of serious safety and health violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine," Main said in his prepared testimony.

Prodded by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Harkin pressed Main about why MSHA hadn't taken stronger steps available to the agency, such its authority to seek a federal court injunction to shut down the mine for creating a continuing threat to its workers.

"Why can't you use that?" Harkin asked. "Why hasn't it ever been used?"

Main responded, "That's a good question. I can't speak for past administrations, but I can tell you we're going to use it."

"Well, I hope so," Harkin replied.

Main said he wants to improve MSHA's process of fining operators for violations and for taking stepped up enforcement -- including shutting down mining sections or entire mines that commit patterns of violations. But, he said, the fastest way for MSHA to take tougher steps is to begin seeking court injunctions against bad operators.

"Every place I went the last couple of weeks, I was asked one simple question: 'Why didn't you shut that mine down?' " Main said. "We need to do something quick, and the injunctive tool is the best thing that we've looked at."

Another witness, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, defended Main, who is a former miner and was the longtime former UMW safety director.

"You can hold Joe accountable and you should," Roberts said. "But it's not going to be long before the coal industry is in here saying, 'He's too tough on us.' He's going to enforce the law. MSHA is going to enforce the law, and coal miners are going to be safer for this."

Roberts called for criminal prosecution in the Upper Big Branch disaster, saying that he's confident that "the people at the very top here, and the board of directors knew this mine was in this kind of shape."

"These miners who work at Massey are scared to death," Roberts said. "This company is run like it's 1921, not the present day."

One former Massey miner, Jeffrey Harris, testified that when he worked for the company mine management routinely ignored methane accumulations and fired miners who complained about safety problems.

"If an operator wants to, it's pretty easy to cut corners on safety," Harris said. "That's exactly what I saw at the Massey mines where I worked.

"Those people who died," Harris added, "they didn't have to die."

Massey officials were not invited to the Senate hearing, but later issued a statement calling Roberts' comments "outrageous" and saying Harris worked for a Massey subsidiary for "a short period of time."

"We find his statements difficult to believe and do not believe he raised any such concern while in our employment," Massey said in its statement. "The picture he paints is not representative of Massey's mines and Massey does not tolerate such conditions."

Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, testified at the hearing on industry's behalf. Watzman said no new laws or regulations are needed and that MSHA has plenty of tools to force safety compliance.

Watzman conceded that the Upper Big Branch disaster has shaken public confidence that the mining industry has improved since a string of disasters in 2006 and 2007 in West Virginia, Kentucky and Utah.

"We do not accept this or any mining tragedy as inevitable," Watzman said. "At the very least, we must use Upper Big Branch as a tool to further improve mine safety."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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