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GOP Unmoved by Miners' Health Concerns While MSHA Cracks Down on Black Lung, Scofflaws

In an earlier political era, a major mine disaster like the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners might have spurred Congress to take action. Not in today's Washington.
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In an earlier political era, a major mine disaster like the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners might have spurred Congress to take action. Not in today's Washington: Republicans blocked passage of a new bill Wednesday that would have enabled the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to more effectively hold repeat offender mine owners accountable and to better protect miners' lives.

While a majority of Democrats supported the bill, to speed its consideration it required a two-thirds majority—under a "suspension of the rules" vote—that it didn't garner, getting only a slim majority of 214 to 193 votes. Even so, the full House did approve added funding for the agency by adding administrative judges to go through the backlog of 19,000 owner appeals of enforcement actions.

After the vote on the mine safety law, House labor committee chairman Rep. George Miller (D-CA), declared, "I am deeply disappointed that Republicans turned their backs on those who work in mines every day, 600 of whom who have died in the last decade. As other mine tragedies have show us in the past, inaction today is paid for with the lives of hard-working miners tomorrow."

And given the change to a Republican-led House in January, one Hill staffer told In These Times bluntly: "It looks unlikely that any mine safety legislation will get to Obama’s desk."

Republicans, on the other hand, insisted that they favored a reasonable compromise, but that there was no need to be too hasty in remedying mine safety until official reports on the Massey mine disaster were completed -- although the bill, in fact, seeks to reform a wide range of long-standing enforcement flaws. The incoming House Education and Labor Committee Chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), released a statement:

It is always unfortunate when opportunities for bipartisan agreement fall victim to partisan politics. Democrats designed today’s vote on a mine safety bill to fail, demonstrating yet again the Majority’s contempt for the legislative process. Republicans have made clear our willingness to work in good faith to address weaknesses in the law governing mine safety and its enforcement by federal officials. However, we do not believe it is possible to effectively respond to the worst mining disaster in 40 years without a full understanding of its causes. Rather than waiting for the results of the numerous ongoing investigations, Democrats cobbled together a flawed bill and set it up for defeat.

In Washington, of course, the best way to delay action is to call for more studies or to find that the ones that have been completed are somehow insufficient.

At the same time, Massey Energy moved to close another one of its dangerous mines—in Kentucky—in the face of a pending federal legal action to close it down as still too unsafe. Despite being hobbled by loopholes in current law, all hope for protecting miners' lives rests squarely on the traditionally lax and underfunded MHSA that is now finally springing to life. It is moving ahead with long-delayed rule-making to limit coal dust-caused "brown lung" disease and launching a new "Rules to Live By" enforcement campaign to focus on critical life-saving standards.

"They're taking a lot more aggressive actions and moving in the right direction," says United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) communications director Phil Smith.

On Tuesday, the mine safety agency held, in Beckley, West Virginia, the first of six hearings on a proposed rule to cut in half the amount of breathable coal dust in order to save the lives and health of miners still falling victim to brown lung disease—with 10,000 dying from it in the last decade alone. Predictably, the mining industry and other pro-business groups blasted the proposed rule as too expensive.

Read the whole story at the The Working In Times blog.

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