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Quit stalling on mine safety



How many reasons does Congress need to pass mine safety legislation? Right off the bat we can think of 29:

Carl Acord, Jason Atkins, Christopher Bell, Greg Brock, Kenneth
Chapman, Robert Clark, Cory Davis, Tim Davis, Mike Elswick, William

Griffith, Steven Harrah, Edward Dean Jones, Richard Lane,
William Lynch, Joe Marcum, Ronald Lee Maynor, Nick McCroskey,
James Mooney, Adam Morgan, Rex Mullins, Josh Napper, Howard

Payne, Jr., Dillard Persinger, Joe Price, Gary Wayne Quarles,
Deward Allan Scott, Grover Skeens, Benny Ray Willingham, Ricky
Workman

They’re the 29 West Virginia coal miners who lost their lives last April when Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, in the worst mine disaster since the Hurricane Creek disaster killed 30 eastern Kentucky miners in 1970. In its wake we all heard a grimly familiar story: tough company, lax enforcement. Massey appears to have done a haphazard job (at best) of ventilating a highly gassy mine. And the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) appears to have done a haphazard job (at best) of calling Massey out.

The mine was non-union — with no safety committee empowered to pull miners out until hazardous conditions were corrected — which meant that if any miners working at UBB even considered blowing a whistle, they would be told, in effect, not to let the doorknob bang them on the butt on the way out.

As miner Stanley Stewart told a House committee last May: “No one felt they could go to management and express their fears. We knew that we’d be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us. Maybe not that day, or that week, but somewhere down the line we’d disappear. We’d seen it happen.”

Familiar story. Rings true. So where are we now, six months later? Basically nowhere.

Mine safety bills introduced in both the House and Senate have languished in a Congress where meaningless posturing and partisan paralysis have given lawmaking an even worse odor than it already had — frustrating reform and, ironically, adding fuel to the Tea Party rage that’s likely to make matters even worse come November.

Why worse? Because the Senate could acquire some new members — Rand Paul, for one — who have made their opposition to federal enforcement — of anything
— quite clear. If that back-tothe 1890s philosophy gets in the saddle, watch out.

The stalled legislation would give MSHA the subpoena power it needs to make its investigations more effective by compelling rather than inviting coal company execs to testify about how they run their mines. MSHA should have had this power decades ago. Its absence is a testimonial to the persistent lobbying power of the coal industry. The bills also add whistleblower protections. And they strengthen workplace protections for other industries, to help protect workers like the 11 men who lost their lives when BP’s oil rig blew up off the Louisiana coast.

Hold on — this is too much too fast, say the Republicans who have stalled the bills. They off er three main objections:

Trying to protect workers other than miners is overreaching, they say. How many workers would have to die before that
bogus claim would be dropped? And they question, even now, why MSHA needs robust subpoena authority — which is like questioning whether the police really need the authority to make arrests. Third, they say there’s not enough data to justify adding whistleblower protections.

Not enough data? Data are numbers. Twenty-nine dead miners aren’t enough data?

Congress has now departed from Washington, to go home and campaign. When the lawmakers return it will be for a relatively brief lame-duck session, before the newly elected lawmakers are sworn in. As the Louisville Courier-Journal’s
Washington bureau chief, Jim Carroll, noted last Sunday: “At this point, it is difficult to see how the Senate and House can resolve significant diff erences over mine and workplace safety in a matter of weeks after they failed to find common ground for months.”

Here’s one way they could do it. They could start every day’s session, right after the obligatory prayer, with a reading of the roll call:

Carl Acord, Jason Atkins, Christopher Bell, Greg Brock, Kenneth
Chapman, Robert Clark, Cory Davis, Tim Davis, Mike Elswick, William

Griffith, Steven Harrah, Edward Dean Jones, Richard Lane,
William Lynch, Joe Marcum, Ronald Lee Maynor, Nick McCroskey,
James Mooney, Adam Morgan, Rex Mullins, Josh Napper, Howard

Payne, Jr., Dillard Persinger, Joe Price, Gary Wayne Quarles,
Deward Allan Scott, Grover Skeens, Benny Ray Willingham, Ricky
Workman.

If you listened to those names being read aloud from the podium every morning, and you still had it in you to stonewall — well, maybe that would qualify you for a top management job with Massey Energy. But you shouldn’t be in Congress.

The prospects for action in 2011? Well, we live in hope. Until then, everyone who goes to work in a dangerous job is at greater risk than necessary. And Congress is little more than a bad joke.


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