Coal Tattoo

The Republican ‘war on coal miners’ continues

Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has consistently raised some good questions about the failed performance of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — and this blog has repeatedly highlighted those efforts (see here, here and here, for example).

And late last week, Rep. Kline had some important things to say about inaction by industry and federal regulators to stop the resurgence of deadly black lung disease:

After more than 40  years of working to reduce black lung among America’s miners, it is deeply troubling the number of those afflicted by this deadly disease is rising. Increased coal demand and technological improvements in the mining industry are not acceptable excuses. Mine operators must abide by coal dust standards and enforcement officials must hold bad actors accountable when they don’t.

At the Upper Big Branch Mine, we learned Massey flouted coal dust standards while inspectors abandoned routine enforcement procedures. In one instance, a citation was issued for overexposure to coal dust, yet  Massey was given more than four weeks to abate the hazard despite district policy allowing seven days. During a committee hearing on the 2010 tragedy, Secretary Main cited company abuse and a failure by MSHA to keep up with the system. Neither approach to safety is in the best interests of miners.

Attempts to strengthen protections against black lung during previous administrations proved unsuccessful. Representatives from both industry and labor raised concerns and progress was stymied. Eliminating the threat of black lung is a difficult but critical challenge. I urge Secretary Main to bring together all interested parties in a renewed effort to find common ground that will improve the health of miners and reduce the risk of this deadly disease.

Of course, Rep. Kline’s position here is greatly undermined by his own party’s renewed effort to kill off — not just delay — the Obama administration’s efforts to put in place more protections for miners and end black lung once and for all.  Also worth looking at again, though, is Rep. Kline’s call that all parties “find common ground” to improve the health of miners. That GOP effort passed out of an appropriations subcommittee yesterday, prompting this comment from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D.W.Va.:

The provision in the House Labor Appropriations Bill that would halt progress on  addressing black lung is reckless; it provides the disease another yearlong grace period to continue attacking miners and taking their lives in growing numbers.  I am disappointed that the language was ever included in the bill and that the effort to remove the ill-conceived language was defeated during Subcommittee action.

With the numbers of victims of black lung tragically increasing, it is a certainty that current methods of addressing miners’ exposure to coal dust are not working and something new and different has to be done.  I have supported the development of a new rule to fine tune those methods and to help prevent more miners from contracting this insidious disease.  Such a rule must be both effective in preventing the disease and workable in ensuring that coal miners can continue to do their jobs.

The Republican response? As explained in The Hill:

“It is the chairman’s position and the position of the subcommittee that that particular regulation is harmful and costly to the industry and to the economy in general,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Republican, referring to Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

Keep in mind, as Rep. Rahall pointed out last week, that the Robert C. Byrd Mine Health and Safety Act:

… Contains language that Senator Byrd had wanted and that I fought to include after his death, that requires the Secretary of Labor to promulgate regulations to ensure that coal operators provide miners with ‘the maximum feasible protection from respirable dust, including coal and silica dust, that is achievable through environmental controls.’  The bill also requires real-time testing of dust levels to enable corrective actions to be taken immediately as necessary and provides greater whistle-blower protections to help miners actively advocate their own health and safety, including ensuring proper use of dust monitors and accurate testing.”

So far, Republicans in the House have blocked this bill, and just recently the GOP rejected a Democratic effort for the  Committee on Education and the Workforce to pledge to report out some sort of mine safety legislation before the end of the year.  Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and the ranking minority member on the committee, noted:

This committee has yet to live up to our promise to improve mine safety, a promise we made to 29 families who lost loved ones in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster two years ago.