Bill Hamilton went through the Sago Mine disaster some seven years ago as both a neighbor and a state lawmaker, and he still cringes when he thinks about the comments of some coal executives that trivialized the deaths of the miners.
"Thank goodness we have more responsible mine operators than we do irresponsible ones," said Hamilton, R-Upshur. "But if you get one irresponsible one, that taints the whole bunch."
Hamilton, along with West Virginia's federal delegation, applauded the new Mine Safety and Health Administration rules that were announced last week in an effort to ensure mine operators monitor and address hazardous problems at their operations so that miners can remain safe on the job.
"I don't agree with all of the things the Obama Administration is doing to the coal industry," Hamilton said. "But this shows our miners matter."
The MSHA rules now allow the federal agency to issue a "Pattern of Violations" notice without first issuing a potential notice. It eliminates the existing requirement that MSHA can consider only final orders in POV matter. It establishes criteria and procedures that MSHA will use to identify mines with a pattern of significant and substantial violations. It also reinforces mine operators' responsibility for compliance with safety and health standards and for monitoring compliance.
"This final rule represents one of MSHA's highest priority regulatory initiatives and one that addresses Congress' intent that this regulation encourage chronic violators to comply with the Mine Act and MSHA's health and safety standards," Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main said in an issued statement.
"We think this final rule will help prevent another tragedy. MSHA should not be prevented from taking action to protect the lives of miners for months, or even years, while we await the final outcome of citations and orders that a mine operator can easily contest. The new rule addresses those flaws."
The announcement comes in the wake of the seven-year anniversary of the mine disaster at Sago that claimed the lives of a dozen men. Both the federal and local governments launched probes into the exact cause of the Jan. 2, 2006, disaster.
That tragedy and one following in Kentucky resulted in a moratorium on foam blocks being used as a sealant.
"My heart still aches over the loss of our coal miners at Sago on that tragic day," U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said. "It's yet another reminder that the best way to honor all of those we've lost is do everything in our power to build upon mine safety improvement."
"Following the Sago disaster, Congress came together and passed legislation focused on improving mine rescue efforts," Rockefeller added. "But the tragedies we have seen over the past seven years show we have more work to do."
In the days following the Sago disaster, current U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who was the state's governor at the time, helped to enact safety reforms that served as a model for federal law.
Senate Bill 247 increased the number of emergency rescue chambers to more than 300 locations in about 180 mines and placed more than 40,000 new self-contained personal breathing devices in underground mines. He also worked to create the Mine and Industry Safety Hot/Tip Line to allow workers to anonymously report unsafe workplace conditions while protecting their job security.
"Not a day goes by when I don't think of the miners we have lost," Manchin said. "While nothing can ever bring those men back to their families, we have made positive changes after the tragedy, and my hope is that the changes we made have put miners in a safer place in the seven years since that awful day. As we continue to reflect on Sago and our other mining disasters, I am determined to make sure Congress enacts meaningful safety reforms so that our miners can always return home to their families at the end of their shifts."
U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said it is imperative that Congress set aside party differences in order to accomplish safety reforms.
"Mine safety is not a partisan issue," she said. "We can work together across party lines and across the Capitol to give everyone involved in mine safety - from inspectors to operators to the miners themselves - the resources they want, need and deserve to run a safe mine."
Rockefeller said he plans to reintroduce the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act again this year. That bill, which was introduced in 2010 about a month after the death of West Virginia's long-time member of the U.S. Senate, strengthens protection for those who report safety concerns and increases MSHA's oversight and accountability, while giving the agency tougher enforcement tools. It was introduced again in 2011, but stalled in the House of Representatives.
Manchin, however, said these newly adopted rules are a step in the right direction in the protection of the country's miners and the mining industry.
He said those workers are the ones who "do the heavy lifting that keeps this country strong.
"A strong mining industry begins with a strong commitment to our miners," Manchin said. "In our state, we're absolutely and totally committed to the safety of every worker."
Hamilton, too, agrees the government should be fully committed to the workplace and to worker safety. But he said the laws can only go so far.
"We can pass all of the laws we want, but we have to enforce them," he said. "In these mining disasters, there always seems to be multiple victims. That's not to say one death doesn't make a difference. One death is one death too many. This is something that is long overdue for these companies that are repeat offenders."