MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Democratic members of West Virginia's congressional delegation say the latest report on a deadly 2010 mine explosion should jar their colleagues into acting on stalled 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," U.S. Sen. 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."
Rockefeller's remarks follow the Tuesday 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. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades.
The internal review found that inspectors missed problems at the Massey Energy mine or didn't even examine areas where they existed. In failing to follow policies and procedures, they also missed opportunities to launch six special investigations and to pursue "flagrant" violations, the most serious designation.
The report acknowledged multiple failures by field staff but said their effectiveness was compromised by internal communication problems and federal budget cuts that created staffing shortages, inexperience and a lack of managerial oversight.
Although MSHA has made significant improvements in the past two years, the report said it's not enough and 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."
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall agreed, saying the report depicts a severely flawed agency. Sen. Joe Manchin, however, credited the agency with taking an in-depth look at its failures and publicly committing to change.
"You can't fix anything if you don't think you did anything wrong, and this report is a step in the right direction," said Manchin, who co-sponsored the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act with Rockefeller and two other senators.
The West Virginia Democrats want to give MSHA more enforcement authority, increase criminal penalties, strengthen whistleblower protections and require independent accident investigations.
MSHA director Joe Main has said his agency also needs federal subpoena power in investigations.
Three bills are pending in Congress, including one crafted with help from MSHA and sponsored by the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, U.S. Rep. George Miller of California.
Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who now chairs that committee, said late Tuesday he's asked Main to attend a hearing on the internal review and what he called "a disturbing failure of enforcement."
Miller, 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."