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Federal mine safety reform priority for WV officials

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They appear to have the will, but will lawmakers find a way to get in comprehensive federal mine safety legislation after failing to do so in the two years following one of the nation's biggest coal mine disasters?

In the aftermath of the 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County information came out that showed the disaster may have been preventable. Post-accident reports spread the blame for the blast from the mine's owner at the time, Massey Energy, to state and federal regulators.

Lawmakers did attempt to pass legislation shortly after the incident. However aside from a bill that required certain safety disclosures to Wall Street investors, none of the bills passed.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., recently was applauded by union officials for work done to reduce barriers to obtaining black lung benefits for miners exposed to coal dust.

"Right now, we are looking at ways of reducing the paperwork to apply for black lung benefits for miners," McKinley said. "We are also working on legislation relating to mine safety grants."  

Miner safety legislation has been declared an important issue by all of West Virginia's representatives in Washington, D.C.

"Protecting our miners is a top priority," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. "I have introduced legislation aimed at correcting many of the issues that we saw in the accident reports following the Upper Big Branch mine explosion."

Capito did introduce a bill this year that did not pass the House. Democrats introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2010, which also couldn't make it into the books.

"I am a leading sponsor of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, a bill written specifically to address the lessons learned as a result of the tragic loss of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. "That bill would provide greater powers for the Mine Safety and Health Administration to oversee, reign in, and correct mining operations with a record of poor safety practices and it would punish those who break the law and put miners at risk."

The two bills contain largely technical differences, but are mostly similar. Capito's bill provided some means of expediting remediation plans and other tweaks generally designed to streamline MSHA's response to coal companies.

Rahall blames Republicans for blocking new mine safety legislation.

"My Republican colleagues in the House have continued to obstruct the ability of MSHA to put forward commonsense protections for our coal miners against black lung disease, and that is truly unfortunate," Rahall said. "…The safety of our miners remains a vital concern of mine, and I will continue to pursue improvements that will save lives."

However, if mine safety legislation is to get through the House, it will require the blessing of Republicans who control that chamber. If Capito's statements are indicative of the party as a whole, there could be room to advance mine safety legislation.

"While the vast majority of operators, managers and miners make safety a top priority, we know that there are bad actors in any industry," Capito said. "My legislation targets these bad actors with tough penalties for those who repeatedly or willfully ignore mine safety standards. I will keep working to ensure our state's mines are safe so that every miner can come home to their family at the end of each shift."

In the Senate, West Virginia's representatives also are awaiting action on mine safety reform. While coal enjoyed some attention on the presidential campaign trail, most officials have been silent on issues of worker protection in the coalfields this cycle.

"I am incredibly frustrated at the lack of urgency in Congress over comprehensive mine safety legislation," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "Our coal miners in West Virginia and across the country put themselves in harm's way each and every day to put food on the table for their families and help turn the nation's lights on, and it's unconscionable that a small group of Republicans keep blocking comprehensive mine safety reform."

Rockefeller led the introduction of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety bill in the Senate last year. He said he can't understand why safety legislation would be blocked.

"As I've said before, it is past time for Congress to pass a mine safety bill and give our coal miners the protection they deserve and justice demands," Rockefeller said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, W-Va., said he is ready for a bipartisan approach to reforming mine safety laws.

"With me, it's always been about the safety of our miners," Manchin said. "Every miner should be able to work in the safest of environments without the fear of retaliation if they speak up. On top of that, we need to be able to hold people accountable and responsible for safety up and down the chain – that includes miners, operators, owners, safety inspectors and regulators."