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Upper Big Branch Shows Need for Stronger Whistle-Blower Laws, Tougher Penalties

Upper Big Branch Shows Need for Stronger Whistle-Blower Laws, Tougher Penalties

If deadly mine disasters like 2010’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) that killed 29 coal miners are to be prevented, miners must have stronger protections to report safety violations, mine safety law must be stronger and mine operators must face tougher penalties for violating safety and health laws, witnesses told a House hearing yesterday.  

Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts told the House Education and the Workforce Committee that Massey Energy's mine management—led by former CEO Donald Blankenship—had a "rogue attitude” toward safety that “was an integral part of the operating culture at the Upper Big Branch mine.”   

Tolerating unsafe working conditions was necessary if they [miners] wanted to keep their jobs. On a daily basis these miners worked in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Roberts said that while the 2006 Miner Act was one of the first federal job safety laws providing whistle-blower protection for workers who report safety violations, “these provisions are now inferior to recent and more-protective whistle-blower provisions included in other statutes” and should strengthened. 

Witnesses identified as problems the lack of Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) subpoena power for investigations and inspections, low penalties for mine officials giving illegal advance notice of inspections, weak job protections for miners who speak up on dangerous conditions and the inability to shut down dangerous mines with systematic problems.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said that without subpoena power and strong whistle-blower protection,

These companies feel immune from MSHA’s efforts because Congress hasn’t given the agency the power to subpoena and workers don’t have worker protections. As long as Congress is going to insulate the mine owners responsible for illegal behavior, I don’t care how many people we give MSHA to staff up. They are going to be playing on the short end of the field. That’s just unacceptable.

But MSHA, especially the district that had jurisdiction over Upper Big Branch, did not do an adequate job to protect the miners, Roberts said.

Although Massey failed in its duty to comply with mine safety laws and regulations, MSHA had a duty to utilize every enforcement tool at its disposal so that miners’ safety would not be jeopardized. Massey made MSHA’s job much more difficult by its subterfuge, but that doesn’t explain or excuse MSHA’s failings. 

MSHA Administrator Joe Main said several years of budget cuts under the Bush administration, a reduction in the number of inspectors and a wave of retirements that has left the agency shorthanded played a role. But, he said: 

I don't think there's any question that there are things we could have done better at Upper Big Branch.

Earlier this month, MSHA’s own report on Upper Big Branch faulted the agency’s actions. Click here for Roberts’ full testimony and here for Main’s. Read more from the UMWA’s report on the disaster here.  

One former Massey supervisor has been sentenced to a jail term, another has plead guilty and is awaiting sentencing and a third has been charged for their roles in the disaster. The investigation is ongoing. 

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