MSHA’s Joe Main: Mine safety legislation still needed, but he’s not pushing ‘any particular bill’

March 3, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

The House Education and Workforce Committee (I had almost forgotten “Labor” was no longer part of the name) has already posted MSHA chief Joe Main’s prepared testimony for today’s mine safety hearing online, and they’ve also posted a prepared statement from the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.

The hearing is titled Examining Recent Regulatory and Enforcement Actions of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Web cast for it will be starting here soon, at about 10 a.m.

Joe Main is going to give lawmakers an update on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation, in which he reports:

When I testified in July, there was little I could tell you about what caused the explosion at Upper Big Branch. In the intervening months, we have learned a tremendous amount. Based on the evidence that the team has gathered to date, it appears that a low volume of methane and/or methane fuel from natural gas provided the fuel for the initial ignition on or near the face of the tailgate side of the longwall shearer, or cutting machine. Small methane ignitions are not uncommon in coal mines, but when proper safety measures are followed, these ignitions are generally controlled or extinguished by proper ventilation and safety equipment on the longwall shearer, such as mining bits and water sprayers.

The evidence to date shows, however, that at Upper Big Branch, the small ignition was not contained or quickly extinguished. The analysis also indicates that a small methane ignition transitioned into a massive explosion, fueled by an accumulation of coal dust that propagated the blast.

While the investigation is not complete, and it is likely to be several months before MSHA is able to issue a report, we do know already that explosions in mines are preventable. Most importantly, we know that a workplace culture, which puts health and safety first, will save lives and prevent tragedy.

Main will tell lawmakers:

This Committee has a long history of standing up for our nation’s miners. It has never subscribed to the myth that mining fatalities are an inevitable aspect of the business. I am joining the plea that Secretary Solis made to you when she testified before the full Committee last month — for you to again stand up for miners and pass new mine safety legislation.

… To make MSHA truly effective in cracking down on serial violators who seem indifferent to miners’ health and safety, MSHA needs additional tools that only Congress can provide. We need to change the culture of safety in some parts of the mining industry, so that they are as concerned about the safety of their miners when MSHA is not looking over their shoulders as when MSHA is there – because MSHA cannot be there all the time. The Administration supports legislation that gives MSHA the enforcement tools it needs to ensure that all mine operators live up to their legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace for all miners.

Interestingly, Main tells lawmakers:

I am not asking the Committee to take up any particular bill. I understand that this is a new Congress with new leadership.

Instead, Main asks lawmakers to “work together across the aisle” to pass legislation improving the Pattern of Violations program, giving MSHA new authority to seek injunctions against mine operators and bring criminal charges against operators, and for additional protections for safety whistleblowers.

Main’s prepared testimony also spends far more time than he has in the past discussing MSHA’s programs to cooperate with mine operators, provide industry training and educational programs, and all of the sorts of things that his predecessors under Republican administrations focused on. And his testimony — his first since the GOP took control of the House — says right up at the beginning:

… At MSHA, we are concerned with the economic and technological feasibility of our regulations and the Mine Act requires us to take that into consideration when developing regulations. We also understand that MSHA’s effective enforcement of the law should create a level playing field, so that operators who play by the rules and provide safe mine conditions do not have to compete against operators that cut corners on safety.

MSHA will continue to partner with the industry to ensure that miners are safe and healthy and that the industry and those who derive their livelihood from the industry – especially those that play by the rules – continue to thrive.

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