The partisan politics of coal-mine safety

March 3, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Well, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce just completed its morning hearing called Examining Recent Regulatory and Enforcement Actions of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

It was really quite a spectacle of partisan politics, and it hardly was about examining recent regulatory and enforcement actions by MSHA.

The Democrats had their agenda: Use the hearing to promote the idea that more legislation is needed to protect the nation’s coal miners. And the Republicans had their agenda: Argue against such legislation.

Both sides were lined up and ready to go, with prepared questions aimed more at making their pre-conceived points, as opposed to using the hearing to actually gain information about what MSHA is — and isn’t — doing to protect the health and safety of the hard-working miners who dig the coal that powers our country.

Oddly, it was the Republicans who seized on my story in this morning’s Gazette about a previously secret audit that found numerous failings by MSHA to do the jobs already given to it by the federal Mine Act.

Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg, R-Mich., mentioned the story and full Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., opened his questioning of Joe Main with a series of queries about the audit’s findings. Kline told Main:

It’s pretty damning, when you look at it. You’ve mentioned that MSHA was using every tool at your disposal, and you’ve asked here now for more legislation to give you more tools, yet it seems looking at this story the failure is not at having the right tools in the toolbox, but in the people using all the tools in the toolbox.

Joe Main tried to at the same time blame the problems outlined in the audit — like incomplete inspections and inadequate enforcement — on the huge number of fairly new inspectors hired by MSHA since 2006. But he also finally admitted that the audit — despite what MSHA’s report to Congress claimed — did outline known systemic problems that date back many, many years:

I think these problems existed and we have to put in place measures to train these problems out … Hopefully as we look down the road, the kind of systemic problems that we’ve seen, we won’t find them.

When the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, got her chance, she tried to sweep the whole issue of these systemic problems under the rug by getting Joe Main to just give her a “yes” to a question about whether MSHA took action on each of the findings in the Office of Accountability Audit. Doing that would let Woolsey move on to her more pressing business, asking questions aimed at getting Main to promote last year’s failed mine safety legislation, named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

I had to wonder — did Rep. Woolsey not notice that, in his prepared testimony for the committee hearing, the Obama administration threw the Byrd legislation under the bus, with Joe Main declaring:

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

Why didn’t any of the Democrats even bother to ask Joe Main why the administration had decided not to come back to Congress with a request that it pass the Byrd legislation? Are there parts of the bill the administration now doesn’t think are needed? Didn’t this comment from Main warrant some explanation?

Rep. Woolsey also, by the way, really let Joe Main off the hook when they were discussing MSHA’s lack of subpoena power … she could just have easily have asked Main why, if MSHA needed to use subpoenas, the agency didn’t just call a public hearing and issue some of them.

But the Democrats on the House panel are fully on board with the idea promoted by MSHA that any effort by MSHA to actually be more transparent with its investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster would in some unspecified way interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation.

Why didn’t Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., (in whose district those 29 miners died) ask Main why oil rig workers from BP deserve a public investigation, but coal miners working for Massey Energy do not?

Well, my good friend Rep. Rahall was kind of busy having a bit of a love-fest with Joe Main, each patting each other on the back repeatedly for their hard work to protect coal miners — and Rep. Rahall defending Main from Kline’s queries about the accountability office audit:

I think you responded very adequately to the chairman’s questions.

One of the few substantive parts of the hearing came when Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., asked Main to explain why MSHA should be able to use citations and orders that might still be under appeal by miner operators to establish a “pattern of violations” against those operators. Main explained that those appeals can take years, meaning miners wait too long to received the protections a POV order would provide:

We can’t wait for years. We don’t need to be putting a mine on a pattern notice four years after they racked up the violations, when they may have become a perfect mine by then.

And the committee’s ranking Democrat, George Miller of California, rightly pointed out that current figures show it takes more than 800 days for citations to be appealed and become final:

That’s forever. Are we just going to continue to empower rogue operations that are endangering miners?

One other piece of news from the hearing came when Joe Main revealed his agency might still be quite a ways from issuing its report on the Upper Big Branch explosion:

We don’t know when we’re going to be done. I think it’s going to be months before we’re able to release the information we have.

Republican members asked some other interesting questions, about MSHA’s progress investigating trouble with self-contained self-rescuers,  and about why MSHA won’t just let mine operators use respirator helmets to protect workers from black lung disease (Joe Main responded by reminding lawmakers that the act Congress passed doesn’t allow those helmets as the primary protection against respirable dust).

The overwhelming question I was left with after this hearing, though, was what would have happened had the accountability office audit of MSHA been disclosed the morning of a congressional hearing where a Republican appointee — maybe Richard Stickler or Dave Lauriski — was testifying about mine safety? Would the Democrats have pretended the audit didn’t exist, as they tried to today? Or would the sides just have switched, with the GOP members trying to protect their guy from any serious questions?

Is this how our nation’s leaders should go about the business of trying to ensure that every coal miner comes home to their family after every shift?

7 Responses to “The partisan politics of coal-mine safety”

  1. Phil Smith says:

    “Or would the sides just have switched, with the GOP members trying to protect their guy from any serious questions?”

    Yes. Especially in the ever-more partisan, use-anything-to-tear-down-your-opponent climate that pervades Capitol Hill today. As worthwhile and important as your article was and is, all it meant for today’s hearing was to give the Republicans on the committee a vehicle to attack the Obama administration, which is really all they will be about for the next two years. I don’t believe for a moment that they had anything like that line of attack in mind before the article was published.

    To her credit, Rep. Capito did not follow that path, and instead asked about fixing the backlog of cases at the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Phil,

    Of course, as you know, it’s not the job of a newspaper reporter to help the Democrats have the kind of hearing they would like to have.

    Perhaps the Democrats on the committee should have done some meaningful oversight of MSHA while they were in the majority, and then some of these problems like those cited in the audit would have been farther along to being fixed.

    The fact of the matter is that the problems at MSHA that leave coal miners vulnerable to dying on the job have existed for many years … nothing new in the audit, except that the problems remain — and MSHA isn’t any more interested in letting the public know about them than the Democratic leadership is.

    Ken.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Phil,

    In addition, I believe the GOP has raised this issue — that MSHA shouldn’t ask for new tools when it’s not using all the ones it already has — during previous hearings.

    Ken.

  4. b. jones says:

    law makers know nothing of coal mining or what it takes to mine.these ppov`s are msha`s way of making violations worse not making a mines safe and i know this first hand.the media blows these violations up into something they are not ,then the public thinks all of us coal miners are a bunch of out laws. like these rescue chambers and rescuers that are supposed to save our lives in the event an explosion happens wont ! they are for fires only and things like this is the stuff the public doesnt hear about because of political agendas.so congress instead of questioning higher ups they should question us the coal miners!

  5. floyd campbell says:

    I have a request. Wear an airstream helmet for 8 hrs. at your office, then imagine trying to do hard physical labor in it.

  6. Richard says:

    Congressional hearings, even factfinding hearings, are never about getting facts. They are all about each member of the Committee putting forth his or her views. I remember a Senate hearing in which each senator was given 30 minutes to ask questions of the witness. Almost all of them spent most of the time talking and very little time actually asking questions designed to get at the facts.

  7. Marty Chase says:

    Nice job with this one, Ken. Typical DC Congressional hearing hot air…more heat (and partisan talking points) than light. Time Mag just picked it up on their blog.

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