WASHINGTON — Three months after a mine explosion killed 29 workers in West Virginia, lawmakers debated legislation Tuesday that would toughen workplace safety rules and increase penalties for all of the nation's employers for only the second time in 40 years.
The House Committee on Education and Labor discussed the proposed legislation, which also prohibits the firing of employees who report unsafe conditions and raises penalties for employers violating safety policies to as much as $250,000 from $70,000.
An April 5 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., the deadliest mine accident in four decades, prompted the legislation, but Republican opponents argue that the bill goes beyond addressing the mine accident.
Supporters for the legislation — mostly the Democrats — say the costs of work-related accidents and illnesses outweigh the expenses of stricter regulations and are pushing for a quick vote.
"The fact of the matter is that the current law isn't working and the pattern of violations that existed (in the 1970s) were exceeded even by the Massey mine here," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House panel.
Opponents of the legislation said the bill strays from its main objective of improving mine safety and dramatically reshapes workplace safety policies, driving up costs for employers and making job creation more difficult.
"I do appreciate Chairman Miller's apparent urgency," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. "I would simply urge us to act as quickly as is prudent to make the necessary changes to the law and its enforcement to protect miners."
Following the April blast, President Barack Obama directed federal mine health and safety officials to crack down on coal mines with a pattern of serious safety violations and urged Congress to fix safety laws that are "riddled with loopholes."
Massey coal mines received hundreds of citations in 2009, including orders to evacuate workers over safety concerns. Federal records show Massey received hundreds more citations for underground mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia following the April explosion.
Stanley Stewart, a coal miner and Massey employee, told lawmakers that Massey has a history of being irresponsible.
"In my years of working for Massey, I feel they have taken coal mining back to the early 1900s using three principles: fear, intimidation and propaganda," Stewart said.
Don Blankenship, Massey's chairman and chief executive, wasn't at the hearing, but he defended his company's safety record in a Senate hearing in May.
"Let me state for the record, Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have and we never will," he said then.
According to a preliminary investigative report ordered by the Obama administration, the April mine blast is likely to have been caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas and coal dust. The preliminary report also found that the citations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the Upper Big Branch mine were more numerous than average and were for more serious violations.
MSHA and the Justice Department are investigating the explosion to determine if crimes were committed, and the FBI is looking into whether Massey officials tampered with safety devices as well as other issues.
In June, Massey sued MSHA for what it called the agency's "its improper use of regulatory authority to control the design of ventilation systems and to limit the use of scrubbers in underground mines."
Opposition from mining companies against tougher safety sanctions has created a backlog of roughly 16,000 cases involving 89,000 violations and more than $195 million in fines, according to Joseph Main, MSHA's director. The sheer volume of these cases has clogged the appeals process and, in some instances, allowed operators to delay paying hefty fines, safety advocates said.
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