WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have adopted sweeping changes in mine safety regulations in response to the explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners in April.
The measure would have made it easier to shut down problem mines, increased penalties for serious safety violations and offered more protection for whistle-blowers.
Democrats brought up the bill under a special procedure in which debate was limited and no amendments were allowed. That procedure requires a two-thirds majority to pass. The vote – largely divided along party lines – was 214-193 in favor of passage, short of the two-thirds needed.
Republicans say the bill is still too punitive and call it premature because investigators are still looking into the Upper Big Branch disaster. GOP lawmakers faulted Democrats for introducing a new version of the bill late last week with no warning and failing to consult with Republicans.
"The Democrats' bill being considered today does little to address mine safety, but rather imposes severe penalties on businesses, introduces dramatic regulatory changes and promotes unnecessary litigation which will hurt those mines and miners operating in good faith," said Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
But Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor and the bill's chief sponsor, said Republicans had "turned their backs on miners."
"As other mine tragedies have shown us in the past, inaction today is paid for with the lives of hardworking miners tomorrow," Miller said.
The bill was a stripped-down version of a more expansive measure that a House committee approved earlier this year. Democrats introduced the latest version last Friday night – after removing provisions that would have applied tougher safety laws to every business in the country – in a last-ditch bid to win approval before Republicans take control of the House next year.
It targeted mines like the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., site of the deadliest accident in the U.S. coal industry since 1970 and the subject of unresolved criminal and civil investigations.
The mine, owned by Massey Energy Co., was subject to more serious safety violations than any in the country. But lawmakers say loopholes in the system allowed the company to file lengthy appeals that delayed penalties.