WASHINGTON -- The Mine Safety and Health Administration is asking Congress to stiffen penalties for mine operators who provide employees advance notice of inspections to help them make quick fixes that conceal violations.
"There doesn't seem to be enough deterrents under the current Mine Act to keep that from happening," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.
His comments came during a hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday. The hearing was convened to discuss what went wrong at Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 West Virginia miners died in an April 2010 explosion.
Investigators found that Massey Energy, which operated the mine, had employees notify underground workers as soon as inspectors arrived. That gave them time to make superficial changes that concealed problems with air quality and coal dust accumulation that might have caused inspectors to shut down the mine and assess fines.
The practice is common in the industry, said Cecil E. Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America, who also testified Tuesday. "Clearly, the existing penalties for advance notice are ineffective and should be increased to help effect compliance," he testified.
Current law allows for maximum penalties of $1,000 in fines or six months in prison.
Inspectors were prevented from observing violations at Upper Big Branch because Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was able to exploit shortcomings in mine regulations without fear of harsh sanctions, Mr. Roberts said.
"He didn't want anybody to die, but he wasn't worried about it because the penalties were not severe enough," he said.
No one at Tuesday's hearing disagreed that Massey deserved the bulk of the blame for the tragedy, but some said Congress played a role, too, for failing to enact more stringent laws.
"We need to put out a little fear the government means business," said Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich.
Mr. Main said his agency needs more authority to enforce laws meant to keep miners safe. "We're using all the tools we have, but we can use a few more," he testified.
"We urge Congress to increase the penalties for egregious mine health and safety violations," Mr. Roberts testified. "What this committee and Congress does really matters to the coal miners of this nation."
Federal law lacks certification requirements for mine superintendents, subpoena power and whistle-blower protections, he said. The Mine Safety and Health Administration needs more authority to address mines with systemic problems, and prosecutors need stronger laws to hold mine operators accountable for criminal violations, he said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: or firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-703-996-9292.