Miners’ health must be protected

It was November 1968 when Farmington No. 9 exploded. My uncle, neighbor and several high school classmates were in the mine at the time of the explosion. For days, everyone I had ever known sat around the company store, waiting for updates about the fate of our loved ones. The look on my mother’s face when she found out her younger brother lost his life in that mine will stay with me forever.

Tragically, as too many West Virginia families know, that would not be our last experience with a mine disaster. During my time as governor, West Virginia suffered three tragic mine accidents. I remember sitting with the families at Sago, waiting anxiously to hear any update. I remember looking through pictures of the miners trapped in Upper Big Branch, when we learned 29 of our own would never return home. I’m reminded of these families every day, and their sacrifices harden my resolve to fight for our miners’ safety at all cost.

With this in mind, I was shocked to learn that Congressmen Jenkins, Mooney and Mckinley all voted to cut funding and staff for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. I cannot believe that any West Virginian can vote against a measure to protect our brave miners as they go underground to provide the coal that powers our country.

These West Virginia representatives know coal miners, know their families and have toured coal mines, and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why they would be against protecting one of their own. I am not calling these congressmen out by name to shame them, but to ensure that reckless cuts like these never, ever go into effect.

I have proven time and again that I am willing to make tough decisions to balance our budget, but we should never do that at the expense of mine safety.

To make matters worse, these cuts have been proposed at a time when mine deaths are on the rise. There have already been 12 deaths across our country this year, and half of those occurred in West Virginia.

In recent years, the mine safety and enforcement functions at MSHA have received $167.86 million. This time around, the House appropriators funded those programs at $149 million. And, if it had passed, the amendment sponsored by Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, that the entire West Virginia House delegation voted for, would have cut that number by another 10 percent. That reduction would directly translate to fewer inspectors at these sites at a time when miner injuries and fatalities are on the rise.

Simply put, this cut will make mines less safe, which is why I will do whatever it takes to stop them.

In the Senate, my colleagues and I on the Appropriations Committee included $373.8 million for MSHA, with $160 million for the mine safety and enforcement program, which is $3 million more than MSHA requested. We recognize the vital importance that MSHA serves to the health and lives of our miners. Their loved ones should never wonder whether these miners will come home safe at night – and certainly not because our federal government decided to cut corners on mine safety enforcement.

The MSHA overall budget has already experienced decreases. This is a small agency, but it has a very important mission — protect the lives of our miners.

In the immediate aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster, I created the Mine and Industry Safety Hot/Tip Line, to empower miners to anonymously report unsafe workplace conditions while protecting their job security. In the wake of the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters, I wrote and signed into law new mine safety legislation with provisions to increase the number of emergency rescue chambers in mines and place more than 40,000 new personal breathing devices in underground mines.

As senator, I have introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, to provide MSHA with tools to investigate unsafe mines and ensure that irresponsible mine operators are held accountable. Last week, I sent a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, expressing my concerns about MSHA’s new Compliance Assistance Program.

As a born-and-bred West Virginian and as someone who mourned the loss of many coal miners because of accidents that could have been prevented, I will not stand idly by and let funding be cut further by the very people who have promised, time and time again, to fight for these miners. As I always have, I will fight for them and do everything in my power to make sure that our miners’ health and safety is the No. 1 priority.

Manchin is the senior senator from West Virginia.

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