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While Republican lawmakers questioned the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration over inspection failures at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall and other House Democrats demanded action Tuesday on stalled legislation to give the agency more power.
The Capitol Hill hearing was the third time MSHA chief Joe Main has testified before Congress about the 2010 explosion that killed 29 Massey Energy coal miners. It was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.
A recent internal review concluded that federal inspectors either missed problems or failed to examine areas where they existed in the 18 months before the blast but found no evidence those failures caused it.
Last week, though, a team led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a report concluding that timely enforcement of existing regulations "would have lessened the chances of -- and possibly could have prevented" the explosion.
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, joined his GOP colleagues in repeatedly pointing to the reports as a sign of chronic failures.
Kline said he found it "difficult, almost impossible" to imagine how inspectors could have failed to notice accumulations of explosive coal dust and why certain administrative tools "were either poorly used or never implemented."
Although inspectors wrote 684 violations in the 18 months prior to the blast, the report said they failed to act on eight that could have been deemed "flagrant," the most serious designation. They also failed to conduct special investigations on at least six occasions to determine whether managers knowingly violated safety standards.
Main said those cases have since been turned over to federal prosecutors.
Main, who started months before the disaster, has since launched a stepped-up inspection program for mines with a history of problems and other programs to make U.S. operations safer. He insisted he's "on a path to really fix MSHA."
But he told Congress he still needs three tools included in proposed federal legislation: stronger protections for coal miners who blow the whistle on dangerous conditions; federal subpoena power for investigations; and stiffer criminal penalties that would be a meaningful deterrent for bad operators.
Several investigations have determined that Massey systematically covered up problems at Upper Big Branch through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety inspection books and an advance-warning system that let miners underground know inspectors were onsite.
Main said administrative changes alone aren't enough to prevent those practices elsewhere.
"We can go ask the mine owner to produce a book that's not legally required to be maintained by the Mine Act, and they can say no. And what we do beyond that is what we're creative enough to do" he said. "We do not have the ability to demand those."
Four investigations have concluded the blast was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by a deadly buildup of methane and coal dust, and allowed to spread because of clogged and broken water sprayers. Main acknowledges MSHA could have done a better job before that explosion but insists blame lies squarely with Massey, bought last summer by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
The mine's former superintendent, Gary May, is set to plead Thursday to a charge of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He is apparently cooperating with prosecutors in a continuing criminal investigation. He is accused, among other things, of disabling a methane gas monitor and falsifying records.
Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, meanwhile, is appealing his conviction for lying to investigators and attempting to destroy records. He was sentenced in February to three years in prison -- one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case.
"What happened at UBB is absolutely criminal, and the Congress should do everything in its power to stop the protection -- in fact, the reward -- of this kind of sick profit-over-people behavior," said Rahall, D-W.Va.
Former Massey chief executive Don Blankenship received production reports from Upper Big Branch every 30 minutes, Rahall said, and could have shut it down at any time. But the mine made Massey $700,000 per shift.
"I do not excuse MSHA's failures," Rahall said, "but the Congress should not withhold effective, lifesaving legal authorities from the agency as some kind of penalty -- because ultimately, the only people penalized by that cockeyed approach will be our miners."
MSHA's internal review said its effectiveness was compromised by internal communication problems and by federal budget cuts that had created staffing shortages, inexperience and a lack of sufficient training.
Republicans argued MSHA funding has increased 34 percent overall since 2006, when the Sago Mine exploded near Buckhannon, killing 12 men.
But by that point, Main said, MSHA's ranks had been sorely depleted. It took a year to begin rehiring inspectors and 18-24 months to get them fully trained.
MSHA shut Upper Big Branch down 48 times in 2009, he noted, but the law allowed Massey to resume production as soon as problems were fixed.