Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 1579)

Apr 15, 2011 Issues: Labor, Worker Safety and Health
Making Work Safer for America’s Miners 
Despite progress over the last several decades, mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.
On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion ripped through Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, killing 29 miners. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigators found there was a widespread failure to comply with mandatory rock dusting standards necessary to prevent coal dust explosions and dysfunctional safety equipment, such as water sprays, necessary to reduce methane and coal dust ignitions where the explosion originated. The mine’s history of repeated violations despite large fines, and the preliminary MSHA findings, illustrate a mine that was operated in a reckless manner and in utter disregard of mandatory safety standards.  
In addition, tools the MSHA could use to hold rogue mine operators like Massey accountable were rendered ineffective because of indiscriminate mine operator appeals of violations and weak laws. The following reforms will bring our nation’s mine health and safety laws up to date, give MSHA the ability to effectively protect miners’ lives, and hold mine operators accountable for putting their workers in unnecessary danger. House Republicans voted to block similar legislation last Congress.
The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2011 (1579) would:
Make Mines with Serious and Repeated Violations Safe – Criteria for ‘pattern of violations’ sanctions would be revamped to ensure that operators that chronically and repeatedly violate mine safety standards or have high accident rates improve safety dramatically. 
Holding Irresponsible Mine Operators Accountable – Maximum criminal penalties would be increased and a sanction is established for those who knowingly tamper with or disable safety equipment that could kill miners. Providing advance of notice of inspections will be treated as a felony instead of a misdemeanor.  Operators would be required to pay penalties in a timely manner. 
Give MSHA Better Enforcement Tools – MSHA would be given the authority to subpoena documents and testimony. Allows MSHA to seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners.  MSHA could require more training of miners in unsafe mines.  MSHA will require contractors, in addition to operators, to report accidents and injuries and hours of work at each mine, and those filing reports would be held responsible for the accuracy of reports. 
Ensuring Miners' Right to Blow Whistle on Unsafe Conditions – Protections for workers and their immediate family members who speak out about unsafe conditions would be strengthened and would guarantee that miners wouldn’t lose pay for safety-related closures. In addition, miners would receive protections allowing them to speak freely during investigations, and criminal sanctions could be brought against those who interfere with the livelihood of those who report safety violations to officials.
Updating Mine Safety Standards to Prevent Explosions – Increases rock dusting requirements to prevent coal dust explosions. Pre-shift reviews of hazards and violations in the mine must be communicated to incoming miners to ensure that they are not caught unaware.  Protocols for continuous atmospheric monitoring for methane and carbon monoxide will be developed by NIOSH and adopted by MSHA through regulations.
Increase MSHA’s Accountability – Requires an independent investigation of serious accidents with three or more fatalities, which includes an assessment of whether there are gaps in MSHA’s oversight or regulation. It asks GAO to assess whether there are problems with timeliness of mine plan reviews.

Read the bill.