Robert C. Byrd Act introduced again

July 30, 2012

On July 26, 2012 Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced the “Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2012.”

Rockefeller previously introduced mine safety and health reform efforts in 2010 and again in 2011. The 2012 legislation includes provisions from the earlier efforts as well as provisions designed to respond to various investigations carried out by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) following the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia in April 2010.

As in previous mine safety bills introduced by Rockefeller, the 2012 legislation includes provisions prohibiting mine operators from keeping two sets of books, establishing strict penalties for unsafe ventilation changes, limiting miners’ exposure to Black Lung Disease, improving federal and state coordination to combat safety violations and improving mine safety technology and enhancing safety training.

The first new provision, Rockefeller said in a news release, “directly addresses the fact that Massey had two sets of books at Upper Big Branch and was not properly sharing information about the condition of the mine with MSHA. These are changes based on the recommendations of the UMWA in their report, and deals with issues that many of the reports highlighted.”

The 2012 legislation would increase civil and criminal penalties for mine operators, while subjecting officers, directors, and agents to liability for knowing violations of the Mine Act or its regulations and redefine a significant and substantial (S&S) violation to mean a violation that could “contribute to the cause and effect of a safety or health hazard if there is reasonable possibility that such violation could result in injury or death,” as well as the imposition of a new maximum penalty of $150,000 for an S&S violation. The legislation also looks to adopt a strict new pattern of violation system that codify several aspects of the proposed rule put forward by the MSHA in 2011; expand MSHA subpoena power beyond its existing authority to include documents related to investigations and inspections and provide for a new layer of government accident investigation power by requiring the Secretary of Health and Human Services to appoint a five-member panel to investigate any accident involving three or more deaths, or an accident that the Secretary feels is severe enough to warrant independent inspection outside of MSHA.

Rockefeller also reintroduced other provisions back into the bill that would provide an independent investigation of serious accidents; Strengthen whistleblower protections for miners who speak out about unsafe conditions; Increase maximum criminal penalties and tighten standards when federal regulators cite a “pattern of violations” in mines that have been targeted for repeat safety violations, and hold mine operators accountable for safety in their mines.

According to the law firm, Patton Boggs, the legislation lacks, however, any provision forcing MSHA to reform its enforcement paradigm according to the recommendations made by the Independent Panel tasked by the Department of Labor to investigate the Upper Big Branch tragedy, even though Panel recommended that MSHA take a fresh look at its enforcement paradigm.


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