Federal regulators and Alpha Natural Resources this week reached an “unprecedented” settlement regarding the tragic explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine outside Beckley, West Virginia in 2010, and though the deal has hardly pleased victims’ families, members of Congress were quick to pile on Massey (which was sold to Alpha Natural Resources earlier this year).
Among those members was Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the chairman of the House workforce committee, who slammed Massey’s “reckless disregard for critical worker safety protections” and for making its workers “face greater danger in an inherently hazardous profession.” But while Kline has repeatedly rebuked Massey, he and his GOP colleagues have done little to address mine safety. Congress, in fact, hasn’t passed a mine safety law since 2006, despite numerous deadly accidents since, as the GOP claims such laws will inhibit job creation — despite evidence showing that increasing mining regulation does just the opposite.
Instead, he has heaped blame on the the agency charged with enforcing mining regulations, as he did in June, when the original Massey report was issued:
“As we have said time and again, the strongest laws on the books will not protect workers if those laws are not obeyed and enforced,” he said. “We will continue to follow this ongoing investigation closely and work to ensure mine safety laws are being followed by mine operators and aggressively enforced by federal officials.”
Kline is correct in stating that even the most stringent laws won’t prevent disasters if they aren’t enforced. What he ignores in blaming regulators, however, is that years of Republican policies made federal mine regulators virtually impotent in efforts to prevent such tragedies. It was a Bush-era policy that urged the Mine Safety and Health Administration to “point out safety violations and help mine operators comply with the rules,” The Hill notes, instead of issuing safety violations and citations. Even so, MSHA issued thousands of violations and citations at Upper Big Branch before the tragedy, to no avail.
Close relationships between politicians and coal officials often prevent regulators from being effective as well. President Bush, for instance, appointed a former Massey official to an MSHA review commission in 2002, despite the company’s already-deadly record. And Bush’s MSHA chief was a former coal exec whose company had amassed injury rates at double the national average. In coal states like Kentucky, officials on the state mine safety board are former coal executives from companies with shoddy safety histories.
Mine safety legislation, meanwhile, continues to go nowhere. The latest effort, a bill introduced in April 2010, was never taken up in the Senate, likely because it couldn’t break a Republican filibuster, and failed to pass the Republican-controlled House.