The U.S. government is vowing to step up mine safety enforcement in the wake of the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in a generation. The Senate committee that oversees workplace safety is also looking at ways to strengthen existing laws to protect miners.
The faces of the fallen looked out at the Senate hearing room -- the images of coal miners killed on the job.
Family members held up the photos at the behest of the committee chair. "Hold up those pictures so we can see who those people are...these real human beings...hold them up...hold them up for us," said Senator Tom Harkin, the son of a miner. He said each death was one too many.
"Too many employers cut corners on safety. Too many workers pay the price with their lives," he said.
Twenty-nine died on April 5 in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, which is owned by the Massey Energy Company. Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said the mine was allowed to remain in operation despite a massive number of safety citations. "This facility had a record of numerous and serious safety violations including 515 violations last year alone," he said.
The head of the government's mine safety agency acknowledged enforcement of existing laws has not been tough enough. Joe Main, the Director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said coal companies are able to drag out the process with endless appeals. "Looking in the past, I think there has a weakness in the enforcement of the law and it has a lot to do with the way the law has been interpreted, to be honest," he said.
Main said the government is now willing to go directly to court to shut down mines when necessary, and he called on Congress to enact tougher enforcement measures.
Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers union, said such action is overdue. "How is it that a company can be allowed in this day and age to put people in this kind of a position. Congress should stand up and take a position that we are not going to tolerate this!," he said.
Roberts said one of the young miners killed at Upper Big Branch left a message behind for his family one day when he went off to work. He quoted part of the letter at the hearing. "If I die in this coal mine please tell everyone that I love them. That's the kind of letter people use to write when they went off to Vietnam in my era," he said.
Massey Energy Company did not send a representative to the hearing, saying it was not a formal investigation into the cause of the explosion. At a news conference Monday in West Virginia, Massey chief executive Dan Blankenship said the company has launched its own inquiry. "It is critical that we find out the facts so that all of Massey and the industry's coal miners can work without fear of another explosion," he said.
The National Mining Association refused to single out Massey during the hearing, saying only that the mining industry wants to improve its safety record across the board. Association spokesman Bruce Watzman told the panel no new regulations are needed.