Coal Tattoo

Here is the text of remarks given by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to the National Mining Association Executive Board Meeting earlier today:

There is no question that the American economy simply cannot function without mining.

From the coal that makes it possible for us to turn on our lights and plug in our computers, to the sand and gravel that literally forms the foundation of our nation’s infrastructure, I know – and the President knows – that our country simply cannot function without the resources provided by America’s mining companies.

As the nation’s Labor Secretary, I know many of you provide the kinds of good paying, middle class jobs that our economy desperately needs right now.

I know that some of the sand and gravel operators got a little help from the Recovery Act, and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to keep things going with some additional infrastructure investment soon.

When the President asked me to take this job, I knew we were in a recession and that working to create good jobs would be the central focus of my work.

That focus, that work has not changed.

But the events of April 5 made clear the need for another priority… one that would require a laser like focus, not just for me, or the President, or even all of you … but for every worker in America, and that’s worker health and safety.

So it’s simply not possible to have a conversation about mining in 2010 without talking about the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch.

The day after the explosion, when MSHA and the company were still in rescue mode, I traveled to offer support to the family members.

I didn’t announce that I was coming.

The next morning, I rode in a pick up truck without any escort or flashing lights so the media wouldn’t know that I was there – because I wasn’t there to get attention.

I went there to spend time with the wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and grandparents of the miners.

Some wanted to talk. Some didn’t.

The reality of the situation was just setting in when I arrived.

The family and friends of the 29 miners were at the point where hope was waning, and the entire community was just starting to come to grips with the fact that they were unlikely to see their loved ones again.

You know these communities.

You know the emotional strength of miners and miner families.

But I hope you never have to experience the pain that I saw in their faces and the helplessness I heard in their voices.

That experience had, and continues to have, a profound impact on me and how I do my job at the Department of Labor.

It was at that moment that I vowed to do everything in my power to make sure that the event that happened at Upper Big Branch would never happen again.

I know that the vast majority of people in this room care deeply about the men and women who work in your mines.

Many of you started in the mines yourself and grew up in mining communities.

The men and women working with you are family.

And I know that the very last thing in the world you want is for that phone to ring to tell you that there’s been a disaster.

But there’s been a lot of chatter in the press in the nearly six months since the disaster at Upper Big Branch, and as is often the case, a lot of talk that simply isn’t right.

I want to take a few moments today to make clear where I’m coming from, the role I see for MSHA, and where I see the Department heading.

First, and foremost, the law is clear – mine operators are ultimately responsible for the safety and health of everyone working in a mine. Period.

It is a mine operator’s responsibility to ensure that comprehensive, effective plans are in place, that those plans are effectively implemented, and that every mine has processes in place to identify and abate hazards.

I know that most of you make safety a priority, and we will work with any mine that wants our help.

But let me be clear, and candid – we will not tolerate mines that cut corners on safety, put miners at risk, pay their fines, and view it as a cost of doing business.

I know there are a lot mine operators that view every accident, no matter how minor, to be a teachable moment.

I know that many of you invest significant resources in research and development of equipment and processes to make your mines safer.

And the truth is many of the most effective safety innovations come not from government offices, but from companies that make investments in mine safety.

I know of one company, Chevron, whose CEO distributes a pocket card to every employee giving them the, authority, and the responsibility to shut down production whenever they come across a hazard that can cause injury or death. I have one of the cards – one they issue to miners – right here.

The card makes clear to their foreman or supervisor that they have the right, and the responsibility, to stop anyone from working when that work puts safety at risk. That’s a company that mines coal. And it’s a company that earned over $10.5 billion in profits last year, proving that it’s possible to be aggressive on safety and on growth.

Preventing injuries and illnesses lowers costs and increases profits, but it also fulfills a company’s legal obligation to provide for the safety and health of all of its workers from the time they punch in, to the time they punch out.

MSHA, on the other hand, is a law enforcement agency.

Like any law enforcement agency, we use the threat of getting caught and the penalties levied against those who are caught to encourage good behavior… for those who need the encouragement.

The law is clear – hazards are to be abated, mines are to be made safe, and mine operators are ultimately responsible.

Our “cops on the beat” will periodically check to ensure compliance, but the system is designed to encourage mine operators to proactively examine, find and fix hazards – whether or not MSHA is on your property.

In addition to being a law enforcement agency, MSHA is also a regulatory agency.

MSHA is reviewing the rules on the books to make sure that we’re integrating the latest science, with industry knowledge and common sense to set standards that ensures the safety of miners.

For example, earlier this week we announced a new emergency temporary standard on rock dust, based upon new data from studies conducted by NIOSH.

New science indicated the need for a new standard, and we acted.

I know that many of you already exceed that standard, and I appreciate the support offered by the NMA when we announced the new standard earlier this week.

We’re using the same approach to ensure that our policies have the intended effect of causing bad actors to clean up their act.

As an example, it should come as no surprise to anyone that in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, we’re taking a hard look at the Pattern of Violations system.

We’re in the middle of a congressionally mandated review by our Inspector General, and there is work in the Congress to rewrite the POV statute.

But let me be clear, even if Congress doesn’t act, there will be new pattern of violation regulations soon, and they will be true to the Congressional intent to have POV be a powerful tool to change the behavior of operators who persistently put miners at risk.

I can say with certainty that there isn’t a single mine operator in this room that knows what it’s like to be placed on pattern of violation status, because in the thirty-three years since the Mine Act was enacted, not a single mine, ever, has been placed into POV status.

And while I’d like to say that’s because mines have become exponentially safer in the last thirty years, we know there are still dangerous mines with persistent and repeated safety problems.

Now the truth is, those of you running mines with good safety records have nothing to be afraid of when it comes to POV.

Those of you that examine, identify and fix your own problems will see very little difference in how you interact with MSHA.

I’m not worried about you. I’m worried about those who think it’s MSHA’s job to find their problems for them.

I’m worried about the minority of mine operators who cut corners.

And I want those mines to be very afraid of getting on pattern of violation status – because I want those mines to change their ways, and to do so quickly.

Now, even for mines that do the right thing day in and day out, the prospect of new mine safety laws pending in Congress, and new regulations pending at DOL may cause some anxiety.

And it’s easy to dig in your heels and say it’s “us against them,” the united front of the mining industry against the legislators and the regulators.

It’s what we’ve seen repeated, time and time again – a disaster happens, the public is outraged, Congress and the regulators propose reform, and industry fights back.

But as you think about ways to deal with efforts to regulate the industry, let me offer, as a Cabinet Secretary and as a former Member of Congress, a different perspective.

The problem with the “industry versus the government” approach is that it lets the bad actors set the terms of the debate, and become the face of your industry.

The legislation pending in the Congress isn’t a result of the actions the vast majority of you did or didn’t take – it’s a result of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

But any legislation or any regulatory effort will affect every mine operator in this room.

Any industry that tolerates bad actors will ultimately find itself subject to regulations designed to target those bad actors – even those companies who are making the investments in time, money, and effort to keep their employees safe.

The mines with the good safety records have an incentive to police your own, to set tough industry standards, and to make clear to your colleagues that shortcuts and bad behavior are not tolerated.

You also have an incentive to support reasonable, targeted legislation, like the legislation pending in the House and Senate named after Senator Robert C. Byrd.

These bills will give MSHA the tools it needs to ensure that the bad actors live up to your standards. They level the playing field, and will help us in our joint mission to keep miners safe.

We all benefit when reasonable reforms level the playing field and keep miners safe.

You have a stake in making sure industry safety leaders actually lead the industry. Because ultimately, you will pay, at least in part, for the safety failures of the mines that refuse to make safety a priority.

Let me end by saying what you probably already know – this is a new Labor Department and a new MSHA.

There will be no free passes, no do over’s when it comes to mine safety.

Joe Main, my Assistant Secretary for MSHA, knows your industry and has spent his entire career in and around mines.

He has my full respect, and I have full confidence in his vision and leadership.

I’ve made clear to him that we will set high standards and we expect mine operators to meet them.

I know that for most of you, this won’t be a problem.

Many of the mines in this room already set standards that far exceed the federal minimums.

But for some of you, this will mean that you need to change the way you approach mine safety.

And you need to make those changes now.

I hope that as you attend your meetings over the next few days, and when you return to your homes and offices, you will keep in mind the 29 miners who perished at the Upper Big Branch on April 5, and the 29 other miners who have died in 2010.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of these miners, and no matter where I am or what I’m doing, they’re not far from my thoughts.

As long as I live, I’ll never, forget the hours and days that followed the explosion at the Upper Big Branch.

It was a profoundly moving moment in my life.

And I hope that neither I, nor any of you, ever have to meet with the families of miners in that moment when the hope starts to run out, and you feel like there is nothing in the world you can do to help them.

The truth is, the best way to avoid that moment is to do all that we can today to prevent disasters like the Upper Big Branch from occurring tomorrow.

That’s my commitment, that’s the President’s commitment, and I know that the vast majority of you share that commitment.

I hope you know you have a partner in me, in MSHA, and in the entire Department of Labor in working to make sure that every miner in the United States comes home safe from their shift, safe and whole.

Let’s make this happen together.

Thank you, and God bless all of America’s miners.