Glace Bay Coal Mine Tour

Glace Bay Coal Mine Tour by Bobcatnorth (Away), on Flickr

The day after federal mine safety officials announced a series of “outrageous” safety violations at a Massey Energy West Virginia coal mine, mining industry officials were on Capitol Hill calling for fewer federal inspections and a voluntary safety program.

At the hearing before the Education and Workforce’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee, the Republican majority allowed just one worker’s witness, Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts, while three mine industry executives testified. Said Roberts:

The disaster at Upper Big Branch, as well as the other deaths and illnesses that continue to plague the mining industry make it clear that Congress must do more to protect miners. Operators should be required to make better efforts to prevent illnesses and injuries in the first place. After all, the mining industry has shown time and time again it is not very effective at self-policing.   

Roberts said the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) needs more enforcement tools, not fewer. He called for stronger safety rules, frequent and unannounced inspections and tougher penalties. (Click here for his full testimony.)

But Anthony Bumbico, vice president of Arch Minerals, the nation’s second largest coal company, lobbied for a voluntary approach to safety, patterned after an OSHA program known as the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP).

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward points out on his Coal Tattoo blog, “It’s worth remembering that most coal-mine deaths are the result of mine operators violating long established safety laws and regulations.”

He writes that the mining industry has been pushing for a voluntary approach, “basically eliminating MSHA” for years, and that the employer-based program was “a pet project” for Bush administration MSHA chief Dave Lauriski.

something to either do away with required quarterly inspections or to create a program for “focused inspections” of only the mines with the worst previous safety performance. The National Mining Association, oddly enough, pushed for this previously just two months after the Sago disaster back in March 2006.

Backdropping the hearing was MSHA’s announcement Tuesday that it had issued 20 withdrawal orders and five citations following a surprise “impact” inspection at a Boone County, W.Va., mine owned by Massey, not far from the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners died in an explosion last year. MSHA chief Joe Main says:

The conduct and behavior exhibited when we caught the mine operator by surprise is nothing short of outrageous. Despite the tragedy at Upper Big Branch last year, and all our efforts to bring mine operators into compliance, some still aren’t getting it. The conditions observed at Randolph Mine place miners at serious risk to the threat of fire, explosion and black lung. Yet, MSHA inspectors can’t be at every mine every day. Our continuing challenge is counteracting the egregious behavior of certain mine operators.

This is crosspost from AFL-CIO Now.

Mike Hall

Mike Hall

AFL-CIO Blogger