WASHINGTON - Laboring to move quickly on sweeping mine safety legislation, a U.S. House committee held its first hearing on the bill Tuesday.
But Republicans and industry leaders said the bill goes too far too fast, as it treads into broader worker safety law and comes before the investigations have fleshed out the causes behind the April 5 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 men.
The chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., officially named the legislation - which was introduced late last month in the House and Senate - in honor of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., a longtime and vigorous champion of mine safety.
The bill would expand the ability of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to shut down problem mines along with increasing criminal penalties for violating safety law and making it easier to prosecute officials higher on the corporate ladder for creating unsafe conditions.
Mr. Miller said the law "will fix these problems that have allowed some mine owners to operate on the margins of safety without being held accountable."
MSHA helped draft the bill, and the agency's leader, Joe Main, testified in support of it, saying it "closes some critical gaps in the Mine Act and establishes strong new protections for miners."
It would give Mr. Main's agency additional power to shut down mines that display a "pattern of violations," a designation created by Congress decades ago that the agency has never utilized. The bill would enable MSHA to shut down all or part of a mine that exhibits repeated violations before those violations are adjudicated in a court review system that can tie cases up for years while companies challenge violations.
Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, said MSHA must get its own house in order and use its existing enforcement tools before beefing up its mandate. An inspector general report last month showed that the agency improperly removed 10 mines from consideration for pattern of violation penalties, though Mr. Main dismissed the finding as a small issue compared to the larger pattern of violations concerns.
Much of Tuesday's discussion centered on additional protections for whistle-blowers.
Many of the committee members cited stirring testimony from a hearing in Beckley, W.Va., in May in which Massey miners and family members of those who died at Upper Big Branch testified about terrible conditions in the mine and a work force afraid to speak up about them.
Stanley "Goose" Stewart, who narrowly escaped the April 5 blast and testified in Beckley, made a repeat appearance in front of the committee, revealing more specific allegations about problems at Upper Big Branch. He told of a 1997 incident in which an illegal air change was made during his shift that caused an explosion - which Mr. Stewart claimed was later covered up.
Mr. Stewart expressed support for the draft bill.
"If this bill is passed, hopefully enough miners will feel they can stand up to the Massey empire or any other rogue company and protect themselves without retaliation," Mr. Stewart said.
The bill was criticized for going beyond mining into amending the Occupational Safety and Health Act with respect to whistle-blowers. It expedites the hearing process for whistle-blowers in all workplaces and allows them to pursue their own cases even if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration declines them. It also increases penalties against employers.
The changes have long been sought by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., the chair of the Education and Labor subcommittee on workplace safety. Republicans criticized them as having no place in a mine safety law. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said she fears "raising the cost of doing business for every employer in America at a time when jobs are scarce and employers are recovering."
Jonathan Snare, of the Coalition for Workplace Safety, an employer group, testified that the changes are too punitive and burdensome on employers.
Democrats and Department of Labor officials defended the whistle-blower reforms as overdue. Assistant Secretary of Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels used the example of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, saying that if workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had reported reckless practices, a crisis could have been averted.
Republicans on the panel questioned whether the law was too hasty.
"Instead of rushing to legislate without all the facts, I hope we listen to the experts who are here today and use their expertise along with the eventual findings of the investigations I just mentioned to enact a bill with a clear focus on making mines safer, period," said Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the panel's top Republican.
Cecil Roberts, the head of the United Mine Workers, who backed most of the provisions in the bill, disagreed. On Friday, he noted, the 41st coal mine fatality of the year occurred in Illinois.
"If we're asking ourselves, 'Are we moving too fast?' maybe we should ask ourselves if we're moving too slow, because miners keep dying in our nation's coal mines," he said.
Mr. Miller said at the end of the hearing the he hoped to move forward "soon" on the bill. The next steps would be a markup and a vote by the committee.
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.