The chairman of a House committee is vowing to haul mine owners in front of his panel to grill them about where safety fits into their business plans.
Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said that he and his staff are designing an investigation into the coal mining industry that will focus primarily on what happens in the boardroom rather than what happens underground.
"This is more about corporate practices and decisions that are made, not necessarily in the mine," Miller told HuffPost. "There's a business design here that maximizes production and minimizes safety. I think much more attention is paid to the rate of production than there is to safety. And I appreciate that they'll all deny it."
But, he said, the evidence is clear that the companies intentionally gamed tightened safety regulations passed after the 2006 Sago mine disaster in ways that "allowed them to do business as usual, perhaps even in an illegal way, and certainly in an unsafe way."
Massey Energy, whose Upper Big Branch mine exploded last week, killing 29 miners, was one of several companies with dismal safety records that nevertheless ducked stricter oversight simply by lodging formal appeals against the major violations issued against them.
Miller held a hearing in February into that very loophole, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration -- neither before nor after the hearing -- actually did anything to close it.
For instance, in September, when the mine safety agency -- known as MSHA, pronounced em-sha -- reviewed the Upper Big Branch mine to see if it should be put in "pattern of violation" status, it met all the criteria save one. As Ken Ward Jr. reported in the Charleston Gazette, it had the requisite orders citing "imminent harm" and a violation rate well above the national average. It also had 16 "withdrawal orders" based on serious and substantial violations. But all 16 were under appeal, and therefore according to MSHA rules, couldn't be considered.
Starting in 2007, so many mining companies began appealing more of the violations lodged against them that the commission charged with adjudicating them developed a massive backlog that effectively allowed the companies to flaunt the rules indefinitely.
"There's a lot going on here, and our job is to untangle it," Miller said. But one thing seems obvious to him already: "I think this was a clear decision by these mine operators."
President Obama, in remarks after meeting with his top labor and mine safety officials at the White House this morning, said last week's disaster was a failure primarily of the mine's owners, but also of government. Yet he indicated that that the loophole was a legislative problem, rather than an enforcement problem.
Miller said it's not that clear. "It's both," he said, while acknowledging that "there are clearly provisions in the law that need to be changed."
Miller yesterday released a previously confidential list of 48 mines that merited increased oversight but avoided it by contesting violations.
"As long as this was not public, they were able to game the system to the detriment of the mine safety administration and to the detriment of the miners," Miller said.
Miller also said that MSHA's decision to maintain Bush-era levels of secrecy was troubling.
"I don't know the why of it," he said. "But I think that we need much more sunshine on everybody's information about these mines. Obviously these are very volatile, very dangerous work sites. So the more information is shared with more parties, the more likely you are to be able to diminish that danger."
And Miller, like Obama, explicitly noted the possibility that last week's explosion would result in criminal charges. The committee, after its investigation, could make an official referral to the Justice Department, he said. "We do not take that off the table."