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Mine safety report gets rise in Capitol

Democrats assail lapses cited in W. Va. tragedy

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In light of a report on a deadly coal mine blast, some Democratic members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation say it is time for Congress to stop delaying action on federal legislation that could help keep the nation’s coal miners safe.

“A small group of my colleagues are blocking comprehensive mine safety reform for reasons that only they can explain,’’ US Senator Jay Rockefeller said. “It’s way past time for Congress to pass it and give our coal miners the protection they deserve and justice demands.’’

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Rockefeller’s remarks followed Tuesday’s release of a report on the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s handling of West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine in the 18 months before a 2010 explosion there killed 29 men.

The internal review found that inspectors missed problems at the Massey Energy mine or did not examine areas where they existed. In failing to follow policies and procedures, they missed opportunities to launch six special investigations and to pursue “flagrant’’ violations. The report acknowledged failures by field staff but said their effectiveness was compromised by internal communication problems and US budget cuts that created staffing shortages, inexperience, and a lack of managerial oversight.

Although the US mining agency has made improvements the past two years, the report offered 20 pages of detailed, technical recommendations for regulatory and administrative changes.

“There is no question that the problems that have been detailed in this report are appalling,’’ Rockefeller said. “This is plainly unacceptable. MSHA must address all the issues raised in this report and make sure such failures never happen again.’’

US Representative Nick Rahall agreed, saying the report depicts a severely flawed agency. Senator Joe Manchin, however, credited the agency with taking an in-depth look and publicly committing to change.

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“You can’t fix anything if you don’t think you did anything wrong,’’ he said, “and this report is a step in the right direction.’’

Rahall and Rockefeller want new legislation to give the mining agency more enforcement authority, increase criminal penalties, strengthen whistleblower protections, and require independent accident investigations.

The director, Joe Main, has said the agency also needs subpoena power in investigations.

Three bills are pending in Congress, including one crafted with help from the mining agency and sponsored by the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, US Representative George Miller.

Representative John Kline of Minnesota, a Republican who chairs that committee, said Tuesday he asked Main to attend a hearing on what he called “a disturbing failure of enforcement.’’

Miller, of California, however, said the entire system failed the West Virginia miners, “from Congress’s failure to maintain adequate and experienced staffing at MSHA over the years, to the agency’s failures to fully enforce the Mine Act, to the inherent weaknesses in that law, to a company hell-bent on exploiting all of those weaknesses.’’

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