This morning’s House committee hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster didn’t exactly come at an easy time for MSHA chief Joe Main. Just four days ago, MSHA was forced to release highly critical findings of a NIOSH review that found Labor Department officials and inspectors could have prevented the April 5, 2010, explosion — if only they had performed the duties Congress already laid out for them in the 1969 and 1977 federal mine safety laws.
The NIOSH finding was troubling not only for MSHA, but also for House Democrats, the United Mine Workers, and anybody who finds it astonishing that we’re approaching the 2nd anniversary of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years without any comprehensive reform bill making it through Congress to President Obama’s desk.
But the hearing was largely without any serious fireworks, despite the fact that the Republican majority brought in someone from the Inspector General’s office to testify about the IG’s report on MSHA’s mishandling of its interactions with Massey Energy during the underground investigation of the mine disaster. And interestingly, most if not all of the Republican members who took part in the hearing were surprising clear about Massey Energy’s safety practices at Upper Big Branch. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, for example, said:
There’s no question the mine operator put production above safety every day, resulting in a huge tragedy.
GOP committee members did hit far harder with questions for Main about MSHA’s many failings prior to the explosion that killed 29 Upper Big Branch miners, going back to problems we’ve know for a long while and giving the MSHA chief an opportunity to respond more to the NIOSH panel report than he did in a prepared statement issued Friday evening. The bottom line from Joe Main? He doesn’t buy the NIOSH panel’s conclusion that MSHA could likely have prevented the disaster if it had followed Mine Act inspection requirements and complied with its own rules and policies for enforcement:
If you look at all of the investigative findings so far, and I believe even the NIOSH report pointed this out, Massey caused this disaster. Having said that, I can’t say for certain that it could or couldn’t have been preventable. I haven’t seen the facts that tell me that we could have taken the actions necessary to stop that.
At times, the Democrats went overboard again with their efforts to protect Joe Main, the former United Mine Workers official. They’ve done that in the past. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., even felt the need to pitch UMWA President Cecil Roberts a huge softball about whether union mines are safer than non-union operations. Rahall, though, followed up with this point for all lawmakers to ponder as they decide if they’ll move any safety legislation this year:
I do not excuse MSHA’s failures. But the Congress should not withhold effective, lifesaving legal authorities from the agency as some kind of penalty — because ultimately, the only people penalized by that cockeyed approach will be our miners.