Coal Tattoo

Why won’t Democrats ask MSHA tough questions?

During yesterday’s Senate committee hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, I tried to follow the questions being asked by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. I swear I did.

But I just couldn’t figure out his point. As best I can tell from his office’s press release, Sen. Manchin wants to strip either MSHA or the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training of its inspection and enforcement duties:

Do you believe that it is time to basically have one agency doing training and one agency doing inspection? Everyone is trying to do everything and I am sometimes finding out that we are not doing either one as well as we could or should.

And apparently, someone on Sen. Manchin’s staff needs to brief him on the fact that West Virginia’s Legislature and the U.S. Congress have created separate mine safety laws, not some cooperative federalism as exists under the Clean Water Act and SMCRA, because the senator is pre-occupied with figuring out which of the two agencies has “primacy”:

If I have state law, and I have our inspectors, and we’re going out there because we live there, that’s us. We’re right there every day. Do we have primacy over that or does the federal have primacy?

I guess I shouldn’t pick on Sen. Manchin … it’s not like other Democrats at yesterday’s hearing really asked very good questions either. As with an earlier House hearing, the Democrats seemed more interested in protecting their party’s appointee to run MSHA than in doing any real oversight of the agency.

Democrats don’t want to press MSHA chief Joe Main about audits that showed continuing enforcement lapses at his agency or about why MSHA never bothered to use one of its toughest new tools — flagrant penalties of up to $220,000 per violation — to try to force Massey to clean up its act at Upper Big Branch before the mine blew up.

The Democrats aren’t pressing Joe Main about his continued secrecy, either. They aren’t pushing for the release of those MSHA audits or for key ventilation records about Upper Big Branch that might shed some light on how well MSHA was doing its job prior to the disaster.

Gosh, there are so many questions that the Democrats could have asked that would have helped clarify what MSHA has and hasn’t been up to over the last year. Somebody might have bothered to ask MSHA the status of two key rulemakings for example … MSHA had promised it would publish both a proposed rule on civil penalties and an emergency rule on proximity devices by yesterday … Neither of those things seems to have happened, and nobody in Congress seemed to even notice.

As we reported in today’s Gazette, the Democrats silence leaves it to the Republican lawmakers to ask MSHA the tough — and important — questions about whether MSHA really did use all of its tools to prevent those 29 miners from dying in a horrible explosion on April 5, 2010.

For folks who care about coal-mine safety, the problem with the Democrats sitting back and letting the GOP grill MSHA is that it allows the Republicans to turn the discussion away from just talking about whether agency officials are doing their jobs. Instead of that, the Republican committee members to advocate a different agenda.

Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the committee’s ranking Republican, had this to say yesterday:

Taxpayers have spent thousands of dollars training MSHA inspectors to identify serious, life-threatening hazards and uncover malfeasance. Why do we send them around to the safest mines on the planet multiple times a year to write citations for unflushed toilets and trash can lids that are ajar?

Part of the Republican agenda (and the industry agenda) here is to find a way to get Congress to eliminate or at least greatly weaken the requirement that all mines must be periodically inspected. They favor an approach for “focused” inspections, as with OSHA, where some workplaces go without a federal inspection for years.

And of course, the Republicans want to use any chance they can to attack President Obama’s policies on coal, and to deride any new regulations, no matter how urgently their needed.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for example, used yesterday’s hearing to argue that MSHA doesn’t need to toughen coal-dust limits in underground mines, because black lung has, over the long-term period, been on the decline. Nobody jumped in to correct Sen. Paul, and point out that black lung has in recent years been on the increase again — or to explain to him that the Congress decided decades ago that MSHA must set the coal-dust limit at a level that would eliminate (not just reduce) black lung disease. The exact language:

Beginning six months after the operative date of this title and from time to time thereafter, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare shall establish, in accordance with the provisions of section 101 of this Act, a schedule reducing the average concentration of respirable dust in the mine atmosphere during each shift to which each miner in the active workings is exposed below the levels established in this section to a level of personal exposure which will prevent new incidences of respiratory disease and the further development of such disease in any person.

Underlying all of this, of course, is also the GOP desire to avoid passage of any new mine safety legislation — and the Democrats belief that such legislation is needed. What is kind of maddening here is that some of the Democrats, when they think about it, have a pretty decent argument to respond to the GOP with.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, for example:

Some commentators have suggested that there is a dichotomy in Congress between those who believe that MSHA needs expanded powers, and those who believe that MSHA has all the powers it needs but just isn’t using them effectively. I think that’s exactly the wrong way to look at the issue. The question is not: did or didn’t MSHA have the tools to prevent Upper Big Branch. The question is: what do all of us need to do to prevent the next disaster? I have never believed that either MSHA needs to fix the regulatory process or we need to pass new mine safety legislation. That is a false choice. Instead, we need to both improve the regulatory structure and pass legislation to improve mine safety.

The problem is, none of this really came out in the hearing, mostly because the Democrats didn’t want to pick on Joe Main and the Obama administration.