Full Statement from Senator Mike Enzi on Improving Safety at Dangerous Mines One Year after Upper Big Branch Hearing

Statement of Michael B. Enzi, Ranking Member
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
March 31, 2011
A Tragic Anniversary: Improving Safety at Dangerous Mines One Year after Upper Big Branch  

Good morning.  This hearing marks a very tragic anniversary.  Almost a year ago today, 29 West Virginia men who went to work in difficult jobs to provide for their families and fuel our nation’s economy were lost in a single accident.  The families of those men have had to sacrifice too much, but just as they have no doubt found ways to honor their loved one’s memory over the past year, I believe the safety of mining in America will improve because of this accident and a life somewhere will be saved because of your loss.  

Since we do not yet have an official report of the cause of the Upper Big Branch tragedy, the Chairman has called this hearing to focus on general mine safety issues.  I appreciate the appearance of Assistant Secretary Joe Main and Elliot Lewis from the Inspector General’s Audit office to testify about this Administration’s efforts to improve mine safety. 

Frankly, some of the news coming out of this Administration is not encouraging.  Since the accident last year we have learned that MSHA knew of problems at Upper Big Branch and failed to use the full extent of its authority to improve safety there.  The UBB mine was even slated to be put on proposed Pattern of Violation notice for increased enforcement, but a computer glitch at MSHA eliminated the warning.  Two Inspector General reports have highlighted major concerns about MSHA’s dysfunctional Pattern of Violations process and concerns about the quality of training MSHA inspectors receive.  I look forward to hearing more about those reports from Mr. Lewis this morning.   

I was also disturbed to read about a report sent from MSHA’s Office of Accountability to you, Mr. Chairman, in your capacity as Chairman of the Labor- Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, on March 25, 2010.  I read about this report in the newspaper earlier this month and saw that it found inadequate inspection documentation and citation writing in vast majority of the field offices audited, as well as failure to complete required inspections in some mines with high methane liberation.  The problems this report exposed are exactly the concerns I spoke about at last year’s hearing on this accident and tried to address in mine safety discussions with many Senators on today’s panel last summer.  It is difficult to understand why this report was not shared with the group working on mine safety.  I understand that Chairman Kline has an outstanding request for all of the reports the Office of Accountability has produced and I will be joining him in that request today. 

My concern then, and even more so now that I have read this appropriations report, is that MSHA has an outsized mandate.  The Mine Act does not allow MSHA the flexibility that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has to focus on bad actors and requires a burdensome citation writing process for every single violation of a standard, no matter how minor.  Taxpayers have spent thousands of dollars training MSHA inspectors to identify serious, life-threatening hazards and uncover malfeasance.  Why do we send them around to the safest mines on the planet multiple times a year to write citations for unflushed toilets and trash can lids that are ajar?  This is a serious question that I hope we can explore together. 

I visited one mine last year as a snowfall of ¼ inch was falling and quickly melting – but an employee was trying to shovel it.  It was too wet and too little to sweep or to shovel.  But just a week before they had been written a citation under the same circumstances. 

In my home state of Wyoming, the mining industry and the jobs and energy it supports are critical.  The industry supports about 43,000 jobs both directly and indirectly. Mining jobs are good jobs that pay, on average, 86 percent higher than the average wage in the state.  These jobs will never be outsourced.  During the last three years, unemployment has soared to sustained highs we have not seen in this country since the Great Depression.  Mining employment is one of the few areas of private sector employment that has seen some moderate growth and is not somehow dependent on federal spending.  Of course, the mining industry would be creating far more jobs if the economy was in a swifter recovery and if power from coal wasn’t being discouraged in the U.S. 

In Wyoming, we work hard to keep employees safe at work.  Mines in Wyoming have developed safety programs far beyond what MSHA requires.  An Arch Coal operation called Black Thunder is the largest surface coal mine in the country and it is located in the Powder River Basin in Gillette, Wyoming.  This operation is responsible for 8% of the nation’s coal supply, and they have an excellent safety record.  Last year they were Wyoming’s safest mine and received an award for working more than 2 years and 6 million employee hours without a lost time injury.  One reason they are so successful is that they have implemented a safety program far and above anything required by MSHA.  This program periodically pairs employees from different work groups for a shift.  One of these employees purpose is to observe the other and identify safety hazards that are observed.  Many of the hazards are behavioral and are easily fixed once pointed out, explained and corrected.  Employees are not punished for any lapses, and the observing employee has volunteered for the duty, although they are still paid by the company.  The record shows what Black Thunder is doing is working, but it is certainly a very different model than MSHA. 

In Wyoming we don’t just mine coal.  We also mine trona (soda ash), bentonite and uranium, among other resources.   While there are some common safety concerns and practices with underground coal, some of the hazards presented are quite different.  These differences must be recognized and solutions for one type of mining should not be blindly applied to others, especially when the policy adds burdensome requirements that will make extracting the resource more costly.  While you can’t outsource mining in Green River, WY to India, if the cost of extracting trona in Wyoming drives the price up, buyers will obtain it from mines in China and hundreds of American jobs will disappear. 

Talk to almost any U.S. coal miner and you will hear that the industry does feel that this Administration’s policies are threatening the industry’s future.  Although the basis for the concern goes well beyond MSHA and the subject of this hearing, it is worth mentioning because safety regulations won’t matter if there are no jobs to keep safe.  Although I was pleased to hear last week that the Administration sees a future for coal with the announcement that they would move forward with coal leases in the Powder River Basin, the President’s overall energy policy seeks to increase prices for Americans and seeks to limit the use of coal.  The President’s decision to allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act will kill jobs in Wyoming and throughout the country, and there are a sizeable number of other regulations coming down the pike that will make it more difficult to use coal – our nation’s cheapest, most abundant energy source.

I know that many of my colleagues here today share my interest in keeping these jobs in America, but making them safer.  This goal can be achieved if we include stakeholders in policy discussions, work to find solutions that address their valid concerns and agree to do the possible, instead of holding out for political victories that will be difficult to achieve.  I was honored to work with former Chairman Kennedy, Senator Rockefeller, Senator Murray and Senator Isakson to author the MINER Act in 2006 – the first major changes to the Mine Act in a generation.  The MINER Act has advanced mine safety technology across the board and done much to better prepare mines to deal with emergencies.  We were able to pass it because we had the support of both labor and industry, and we got their support by involving both in the process.  I stand ready to re-engage in that process with partners interested in forming achievable goals, sharing information, consulting all affected stakeholders and reaching agreement rather than making political points.  I believe this is the best way we can honor the 29 men who died on April 5 and the 42 other miners who lost their lives at work last year. 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

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