Rockefeller adds new provisions to revamped coal mine safety bill

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said July 26 that he is reintroducing his landmark mine safety legislation with new provisions aimed at fixing more of the “glaring safety issues” revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in West Virginia.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has already cracked down under existing rules in the wake of the April 2010 Upper Big Branch blast. The agency has also issued a final accident report that hit hard at Massey Energy, the operator of the mine. Massey was taken over in June 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR).

Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, Congress has held nine hearings on mine safety, and five federal, state, and independent entities have conducted investigations into the cause of the tragedy and released recommendations to improve mine safety laws and enforcement, Rockefeller noted. In the two years since Upper Big Branch, both Congress and the Obama Administration have enacted targeted laws and regulations to improve the health and safety of coal miners. However, comprehensive legislation still is needed to achieve safety improvements, including those specifically recommended by West Virginia miners’ families and investigations into the Upper Big Branch disaster, the senator said.

“The catastrophe at Upper Big Branch was a wakeup call that not enough was being done to protect our coal miners,” Rockefeller said. “In the two years since that terrible day we’ve made some progress, but major reforms are still desperately needed and continue to be stalled by opponents. Another 20 miners have been killed on the job so far just this year, and even one death is one too many. We cannot—and we dare not—forget our obligation to miners, their families and our West Virginia communities.”

Rockefeller said that progress made on safety since the Upper Big Branch accident includes:

  • a Wall Street Reform law that included Rockefeller’s language requiring publicly-traded mining companies to disclose serious safety violations to shareholders, the public, and the Securities and Exchange Commission;
  • MSHA has revised the screening criteria for placing mines onto a “Pattern of Violations,” and in April 2011, for the first time in the history of the Mine Act, MSHA placed two mines onto a Pattern of Violations, and as of the end of 2011 had notified 94 mines that they faced a “potential Pattern of Violations”; 
  • Congress appropriated $22m through the Supplemental Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010 to help reduce the backlog of appeals at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission;
  • in June 2011, MSHA issued final regulations requiring mine operators to maintain incombustible content of combined dust of at least 80% in underground mines; and
  • as of May 2012, MSHA has conducted 452 impact inspections resulting in 8,106 citations, 811 orders, and 32 safeguards. 

This is now the third time Rockefeller has introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act, which was introduced in 2010 and again last year. “My new bill includes important pieces from my previous mine safety legislation, which I’ve been fighting to pass in Congress,” he said. “It also includes new provisions that specifically address problems that the investigations into the tragedy at Upper Big Branch brought to light.”

The new provisions include:

Prohibits Mine Operators from Keeping Two Sets of Books. This provision directly addresses the fact that Massey Energy had two sets of books at Upper Big Branch and was not sharing information about the condition of the mine with MSHA, Rockefeller noted. These are changes based on the recommendations of the United Mine Workers of America union in its report, and deals with issues that many of the reports highlighted. 

Establishes Strict Penalties for Unsafe Ventilation Changes. Investigations conducted by MSHA, the UMWA and the West Virginia governor’s Independent Investigation Panel determined that Massey made multiple illegal ventilation changes at Upper Big Branch mine without any approval. The bill would severely penalize mine companies with up to $220,000 in fines for such flagrant violations.

Limits Miners’ Exposure to Black Lung Disease. This debilitating disease is on the rise among a new generation of coal miners. The provision would require that MSHA issue a rule within six months to lower exposure levels to respirable dust which would provide the maximum feasible protection that is achievable through environmental controls. It would also require that MSHA reexamine the incidence of black lung every five years and, unless there is a decline in black lung, update the regulations again. More than 70% of the victims tested at Upper Big Branch had signs of black lung disease.

Improves Federal and State Coordination to Combat Safety Violations. The West Virginia governor’s Independent Investigation Panel recommended that federal and state agencies immediately work together to address safety problems at mines right after they are found out, and this provision would strongly encourage such actions. 

Improves Mine Safety Technology and Enhances Safety Training. This legislation entitles miners to quarterly training on the use of emergency oxygen supplies under real-world operating conditions, and also requires the installation of “black box” technology on mining equipment to measure methane, oxygen, carbon monoxide and coal dust levels.

The reintroduced provisions from earlier Rockefeller bills include:

  • giving MSHA expanded authority to subpoena documents and testimony;
  • provision for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents, putting the probe of major accidents (involving three or more deaths) in the hands of an independent panel to investigate the actions of both the operator and MSHA;
  • strengthening of whistleblower protections for miners who speak out about unsafe conditions;
  • increasing maximum criminal penalties, since at this point, criminal violations of mine safety laws are a misdemeanor for a first offense; and
  • reforming and tightening standards for when federal regulators cite a “pattern of violations” in mines that have been targeted for repeat safety violations.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.