Coal Tattoo

Massey urges Congress to hold off safety reforms

That high-powered public relations and lobbying firm hired by Massey Energy to help the company after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster is pushing the idea that federal lawmakers should hold off any reform legislation until the entire investigation is completed — which could be a year or more from now.

Officials from the firm Public Strategies (whose principals include former Bush White House counselor Dan Bartlett) are circulating copies of yesterday’s Daily Mail editorial, “Let’s not grandstand on mine safety laws” on Capitol Hill. The editorial took on West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who dared to suggest that there were actions that could be taken right away that would improve mine safety, even if investigators don’t yet have all the answers about what caused the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners and injured two others.

I asked Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater about his company’s lobbying efforts, and he sent me this e-mailed statement:

We agree with the overall premise of the editorial that there should be no rush to judgment by state or federal lawmakers on which legislative initiatives may be adopted until all of the facts are ascertained as to what caused the UBB accident. We feel it would be premature for Congress to act without first acquiring all the relevant information surrounding the UBB accident.

But in a letter to President Obama (oddly enough, released on the Sunday before Memorial Day), Rockefeller outlined what he said were recommendations made by families of the Upper Big Branch victims, including:

— Requiring each mine to have a certified mine safety team comprised of miners;

— Requiring inspectors to choose miners to accompany them on safety inspections;

— Improving rock dusting standards;

— Requiring inspectors to conduct inspections during evening and weekend shifts, rather than just during day shifts; and

— Piercing the corporate veil to hold upper management, Directors, and CEOs accountable for the safety of miners.

No one is saying that all of the answers are in about what caused the Massey disaster, but Sen. Rockefeller told President Obama:

The MSHA investigation of the Upper Big Branch tragedy will provide critical information about this tragedy, and may require further state and federal action, but there is a great deal of information that has already come to light. There is no reason to wait to take action to address known problems.

Sen. Rockefeller’s letter aside, the only real action so far in Congress has been efforts by Rockefeller and Sen. Robert C. Byrd to add some shareholder accountability for coal industry safety to the financial regulation overhaul bill. Nobody has introduced any major, multi-faceted reform bill — and MSHA hasn’t really proposed anything like this, either through administration sponsored legislation or regulatory changes.

Four years ago, the state of West Virginia acted within a month of the Sago Mine Disaster … but it took another tragedy at Massey’s Aracoma Mine to get Gov. Joe Manchin and the Legislature really moving.

On the federal level, the West Virginia delegation introduced its major mine safety bill on Feb. 1, 2006, just less than a month after Sago. But, Congress didn’t act until after Aracoma and then a third disaster, the five deaths at Kentucky Darby … This weekend, we’ll be marking two months since the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up …