Coal Tattoo

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., questions panel members on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, during the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Here is Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s opening statement from today’s mine safety hearing:

I very much appreciate your holding this hearing. You and your staff have been very gracious in accommodating my requests for supplemental funding and for this oversight hearing, in the wake of the terrible tragedy that took the lives of 29 miners in the coal fields of southern West Virginia.

Nearly two months after that horrific explosion, I am perplexed as to how such a tragedy, on such a scale, could happen, given the significant increases in funding and manpower for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which have been provided by this Committee.

In recent weeks, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has announced so-called inspection blitzes. MSHA has announced new rules concerning pre-shift examinations and pattern violators, and has displayed a new-found willingness to use injunctive relief to close dangerous mines. It is tragic that miners had to perish in order to precipitate such enforcement. The Congress has authorized the most aggressive miner protection laws in the history of the world, but such laws are useless if the enforcement agency is not vigorous about demanding safety in the mines.

These laws are also jeopardized when the miners themselves are not incorporated into the heart of the inspection and enforcement process – – as Congress has intended them to be. Now is the time – – in fact, long past the time – – to cast off the fears, cronyism, and other encumbrances that have shackled coal miners and MSHA in the past.

Assistant Secretary Main, and his team at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, still have much to explain regarding this tragedy at Upper Big Branch which happened on their watch. I do not believe it was because of a lack of funding. I do not believe that MSHA lacked enforcement authorities.

Massey Energy officials, who bear the ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of their workers, still have much to explain to the country and to the families of the miners who perished. I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers.

The Upper Big Branch Mine had an alarming record of withdrawal orders – – where was the commensurate effort to improve safety and health?

Presently there are several ongoing investigations, including an ongoing criminal investigation. Perhaps these will provide some solace to the families who are looking for accountability. Let us also hope that this hearing will provide information on the government and company officials who should be held accountable, and lead us to some additional steps which may be taken to avoid such horrific loss of life in the future.