Senate to examine mine safety in hearing today
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WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel today will examine legislative solutions in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, even while the investigations into the blast are in their infancy.
Notably absent from the witness list is anyone from Massey Energy, the company that owns Upper Big Branch and has been repeatedly criticized since the April 5 blast that killed 29, the worst mine disaster in four decades. The company held a news conference Monday in Charleston, W.Va. to defend its safety record.
A spokeswoman for committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Massey was not invited because the hearing concerns general improvements to mine safety rather than a specific inquiry into Upper Big Branch.
Thus, the primary focus of today's hearing will be on the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency that found repeated serious violations at the mine but did not shut it down.
In his testimony, Joe Main, the head of MSHA, will address weaknesses in current law that hinder safety enforcement, according to a spokeswoman. He's expected to focus on the backlog created when mine owners challenge MSHA citations -- tying cases up for years and preventing MSHA from establishing a pattern of violations -- and ask Congress to streamline the process that would allow MSHA to shut down a mine.
Representing the industry perspective at the hearing will be Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association. Mr. Watzman is expected to contend that current law gives MSHA enough power to shut down the most dangerous mines and that the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission needs more resources to address the violation challenge backlog.
Mr. Watzman will enter a hostile environment: from President Barack Obama -- who called the blast "a failure first and foremost of management" -- to congressional leaders, the industry has been accused of putting profits ahead of safety.
Offering a ground-level view will be Jeff Harris, a former Massey miner from Beckley, W.Va., who worked occasionally at Upper Big Branch and quit because he was concerned about safety problems.
The testimony of Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, according to a spokesman, is expected to take aim at Massey Energy and CEO Don Blankenship for the company's safety record and Mr. Blankenship's compensation -- which topped $17 million last year.
In addition, Mr. Roberts will prod MSHA to be more aggressive in its execution of current laws. But he also plans to recommend new legal authorities for MSHA to hasten the process of shutting down a mine with a pattern of serious violations and to force operators to pay pending safety fines immediately into an escrow account so there is a swift hit to their pocketbooks while a legal challenge proceeds.
A spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the panel, said he will reiterate his commitment to miner safety -- including playing a role in the 2006 overhaul that followed disasters at Sago, W.Va., and elsewhere -- but will also preach patience to let investigators sort out what happened at Upper Big Branch.
Democrats will want to act sooner -- likely starting by reviving in some form the 2007 mine safety reform bill that passed the House but never got a committee vote in the Senate in the face of a veto threat by President George W. Bush.
Among other provisions, the bill would have given MSHA subpoena power during its post-accident investigations. The agency now only has that power if it conducts an open hearing.
First Published April 27, 2010 12:00 am