POLITICS
05/16/2011 01:20 pm ET Updated May 29, 2014

Mine Safety: Big Coal Rep Gave 'Contradictory' Testimony, Dems Allege

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats have accused a coal industry representative of giving "questionable" testimony during a hearing on mine safety reform earlier this month.

In a letter to Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, George Miller (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said that Anthony Bumbico needs to clarify the "contradictory testimony" he gave regarding alleged whistleblower retaliation at his company, Arch Coal. The mining company executive was testifying before the legislators on behalf of the National Mining Association.

During the May 4 hearing, Bumbico was asked about the case of Charles Scott Howard. An employee at an Arch Coal subsidiary, Howard was disciplined and then laid off after publicly showing a video that revealed potentially dangerous conditions at the Kentucky mine where he worked. Bumbico testified that Howard had chosen to go public rather than bring the problems to the attention of mine management and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. But as recently detailed in the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News, Howard had repeatedly noted the problems in company log books and brought the video to an MSHA hearing only after the company took no action, according to Howard's lawyer.

Asked if Bumbico stands by his testimony, Arch Coal spokeswoman Kim Link said, "[s]hould we receive a letter seeking clarification [from Congress], we will respond accordingly."

Although Howard's case may seem like a small matter, Bumbico's testomy -- and Democrats' fiery response to it -- says a lot about the struggle to reform MSHA and change mine safety oversight laws. Even though more than a year has passed since the tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine, in which 29 West Virginia miners perished, Congress has not managed to pass a major safety reform bill. In the years leading up to the disaster, Upper Big Branch owner Massey Energy had repeatedly been cited for safety violations.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act failed in the House last year under Republican opposition but has since been reintroduced. Among other changes, the law would bring more scrutiny to mines with "patterns of violations," increase the criminal penalties against unsafe mines and enhance protections for mine whistleblowers like Howard.

Fearing the costs of more oversight, mining interests have argued that MSHA already has the regulatory tools it needs to ensure safe workplaces. Testifying as an invitee of Republicans, Bumbico even said that -- rather than taking on more oversight -- MSHA should adopt a "voluntary" safety compliance program for mining companies. Mine safety advocates and many Democrats believe that such a self-policing program would be a joke, essentially taking funding away from MSHA and allowing mines to forgo quarterly inspections by the agency.

Speaking about the prospect of real reform, a pessimistic Miller recently told the L.A. Times that "nothing will happen until the next major disaster."