While applauding the efforts of two West Virginia senators hoping to improve the safety of America's coal miners, a spokesman for an industry organization was critical of the bill introduced to Congress for the fourth time in three years.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., reintroduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act, a bill he believes will remedy the issues that came to light following the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that claimed 29 lives.
The proposed bill before Congress would strengthen whistleblower protections for those miners who speak about unsafe conditions. It would also increase the criminal penalties for those who knowingly violate mine safety standards, and it would prohibit mine operators from keeping two sets of books. The proposed bill would also give the Mine Safety and Health Administration increased powers to subpoena documents and testimony.
A spokesperson for Arch Coal, a company which has mining operations in Upshur County, deferred making comments on the legislation and instead referred all questions to the National Mining Association.
"Based on our analysis, MSHA already has the authority to implement the changes provided by the proposed legislation," NMA spokesman Luke Popovich said. "The other provisions are unduly punitive and will not further the cause of mine safety."
Popovich said employee safety continues to be the top priority of the nation's coal operators, and he applauded the efforts of the two senators for keeping the issue on the front burner.
"We share the senators' commitment to mine safety," Popovich said. "Our development and ongoing implementation of the CORESafety management system that the NMA developed last year is evidence of that commitment."
A spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, however, said the time for studying reports of these past tragedies is over, and the time to act is now before another one occurs.
"We believe this bill should have passed back when Sen. Byrd introduced it," Phil Smith said. "When any employer puts the lives of employees at risk, in our opinion, the punishment cannot be too great."
Smith said the punishments contained within the legislation should force mine owners to rethink the way business is conducted.
"We need to get past the thinking that you can violate, get caught, pay a fine and consider that just a cost of doing business," Smith said. "If that continues, things won't change very fast."
Rockefeller also said more must be done to protect miners.
"Some crucial steps have been taken to improve mine safety, but we are long overdue to make an even bigger leap forward by passing comprehensive mine safety legislation," Rockefeller said. "Coal miners' loved ones give thanks for answered prayers every time they walk through the front door. We should be constantly vigilant for that safe return home. We cannot wait for another tragedy before we act."
Fellow West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin echoed Rockefeller's statements, saying mining is an important part of the state's culture and economic future.
"Every miner should wake up in the morning and expect to come home safely to their loved ones at night," Manchin said. "We need to continue to improve mine safety so that our miners' lives are never in jeopardy."