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Three years after Upper Big Branch

It has been three years since 29 miners perished in a Raleigh County, W.Va., mine explosion, and what do we have to show for it? Not much.

In the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Congress has yet to enact legislation that would protect miners who plunge into the depths of the Earth – and it’s the miners who are suffering the consequences.

That does not mean that legislation has not been introduced. U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd introduced legislation before his death to hold accountable repeat violators, such as Massey Energy. And just last month, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act was reintroduced for the third time.

The legislation would bring the nation’s mine health and safety laws up to date, give mine safety officials the ability to effectively investigate and shut down habitually dangerous mines, hold mine operators accountable for putting their workers in unnecessary danger, and protect miners who blow the whistle on unsafe conditions from retaliation. Yet, this legislation to protect miners has gone nowhere in the halls of power.

This legislation is even more important given the recent spate of miners’ deaths. In the first three months of this year, eight miners were killed on the job, five of whom worked in West Virginia. Clearly, something needs to be done to ensure that miners make it home safely at the end of a shift.

But many in Congress refuse to enact legislation that would impose more regulations – of any kind – on businesses. Meanwhile, miners continue to die on the job.

In West Virginia specifically, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year helped usher through the legislative process a state law that would implement tougher methane-monitoring requirements for underground coal mines, increase fines for violators, and require close supervision of apprentice miners. But these provisions have been delayed repeatedly as the coal industry tries to water down the rules.

And on the agency side, a recent audit from the U.S. Labor Department Office of Inspector General praised the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for “significant progress” in implementing recommendations from an internal agency review before the Upper Big Branch tragedy. But, as the Charleston Gazette noted, the agency has implemented just over half of the recommendations, and does not have target dates set for much of the second half.

Just over half of the recommendations from a review before the explosion have been implemented.

As MSHA stalls on other recommendations, miners are paying the price.

An independent report found that the explosion was entirely preventable if proper safety precautions had been taken. Massey Energy blatantly disregarded workers’ safety to maximize profit. The proposed legislation would help to hold negligent employers like Massey Energy accountable and would provide mine regulators the tools they need to ensure that miners are protected from on-the-job hazards.

If for no other reason, Congress owes it to the 29 miners who lost their lives three years ago at Upper Big Branch to pass meaningful legislation to prevent similar tragedies at mines across the country.

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