WASHINGTON — They were harrowing tales of love and loss, of 29 lives that didn’t have to be snuffed out in a tragic West Virginia mining accident that family members said was entirely preventable.
Those who lost loved ones in the April Upper Big Branch mine disaster spoke Monday before a field hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, the key House panel conducting an investigation into the causes of the disaster — and the one responsible for recommending any policy changes.
“Multiple investigations of that tragedy are underway, and we won’t fully understand the causes of that explosion — or what could have been done to prevent it — until the investigations are complete,” said Rep. John Kline, ranking member of the Education and Labor Committee. “In the interim, Congress is focused on examining compliance with, and enforcement of, existing mine safety laws.”
It’s unclear at present exactly what impact — if any — a federal investigation would have on open-pit mining operations in northern Minnesota.
Staffers said that congressional investigators are considering underground coal mining and open-pit mining to be two completely different arenas, with different regulations and regulatory needs.
Perhaps nowhere is the need more poignantly differentiated than in their safety records. While the Upper Big Branch mine disaster caused more deaths than any other mining accident in 40 years, Minnesota miners have avoided fatal accidents for the last two years.
“Given the events of this year, we are especially concerned about those laws designed to address the unique risks and challenges of underground coal mining,” Kline said.
“My first priority is to ensure current protections for miners are being strictly obeyed and stringently enforced by federal regulators,” Kline said. “The stories we heard at today’s hearing — instances of blatant disregard for safety precautions — are simply unacceptable.”