Coal Tattoo

Coal industry: No new mine safety rules needed


My good friend from the National Mining Association, Bruce Watzman (a former aide to Rep. Nick Rahall — who knew?) certainly didn’t have the easiest job in the world this afternoon … Watzman was the guy who had to fall on his sword, and go testify in the Senate in defense of an industry where 29 workers were just blown up in a West Virginia coal mine.

But Bruce didn’t disappoint. He offered a mix of sympathy for the victims (and I’m not questioning that this is genuine), a pledge to work harder to improve mining’s safety performance, but at the same time an insistence that there’s no need for Congress to rush into passing new laws or mandating new regulations.

A few highlights from his testimony:

— On whether such terrible disasters can be prevented — “We do not accept his or any mining tragedy as inevitable … preventing a recurrence must include a complete and transparent examination of the actions of all parties … at the very least, we must use Upper Big Branch as a tool to further improve mine safety.”

— On the general safety record of the industry, and what Upper Big Branch tells the public about that record — “American mining has made significant investments in and commitment to mine safety in recent years, and has successfully lowered our rate of injures. Last year was the safest year in history for all of U.S. mining and for coal mining. We understand, however, that this accomplishment offers little solace to the families that lost loved ones. The loss of life at the Upper Big Branch Mine calls our progress into question. We understand that. Only when the lessons learned from this tragedy are clearly identified and woven into the fabric of daily operating procedures can we expect to realize the full results of our commitment to safety.”

— On whether MSHA needs new authority — “In our view, the enforcement authority provided MSHA under the Mine [Act] is sufficient to ensure that mine operators are providing a safe and healthy work environment for their employees … the Mine Act goes well beyond the authority provided to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for example … Unlike workplaces in general industry, mines are currently subjected to mandatory inspections during which inspectors have the authority to enter without a warrant, evaluate an entire mine and withdraw miners from any area of a mine for failure to abate cited conditions, for unwarrantable failure to comply with mandatory standards, and in any area that presents an imminent danger … Withdrawal orders may be issued on the spot by any authorized representative of the Secretary … This is the most powerful enforcement tool afforded any enforcement agency.”

Now, lawmakers tried to press Bruce about bad operators, asking why the National Mining Association doesn’t pressure such operators or publicly criticize them, saying they make the entire industry look bad. Bruce responded that his organization would rather try to “change the culture” of the entire mining industry than “ostracize” particular companies.

Oddly enough, while so much of today’s hearing focused on Massey Energy and Upper Big Branch, Senate leaders didn’t invite anyone from Massey to come and testify. Instead, they put two anti-Massey witnesses — UMWA President Cecil Roberts and former Massey miner Jeffrey Harris (three really, if you count MSHA’s Joe Main, and you probably should)  — on the agenda, without either giving Massey its say, or — perhaps more importantly — putting company officials on the stand to answer for the company’s record in a public forum, where Massey PR people couldn’t control what was asked or how long the questioning lasted.