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Delinquent Mines: Congress Revives Bill To Hold Mine Owners Accountable

Federal lawmakers have revived a mine safety reform bill that addresses a regulatory failure detailed in a joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act includes a provision that directly addresses the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) failure to fully enforce penalties for safety violations at the nation's mines.

As NPR and Mine Safety Health News reported in November, thousands of mines with unpaid safety penalties had a significantly higher rate of injury and were able to escape payment of $70 million in safety fines. Most fines were years overdue. Some went unpaid for decades.

The Byrd Act would shut down mines that are more than six months late in paying safety penalties or have defaulted on payment plans.

"A tool like that ... would probably change the attitude of that mine operator," said MSHA Chief Joe Main at a hearing Thursday before the House Subcommittee on Mine Safety Enforcement.

"It would put them on notice that the violations that you accrue — putting miners in danger — you're going to be held accountable for them," Main added.

House Democrats introduced the measure Wednesday. Senators Robert Casey, D-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced Thursday that the Senate version of the bill is about to be reintroduced.

Senator Casey said the bill will ensure that there are serious "consequences for those that disregard safety."

"There are too many safety violations and too often those violations go without accountability," Casey said.

The NPR/Mine Safety and Health News investigation found that mines with delinquent penalties committed an additional 130,000 violations and reported 4,000 injuries while they were delinquent.

The Byrd Act would transform serious safety violations from misdemeanors to felonies, increase penalties for serious violations (like those that have led to catastrophes) from $70,000 to $220,000, establish independent investigations of mine accidents, give MSHA tougher enforcement tools and give whistleblower protection to miners who complain about safety hazards.

The legislation is named for the late Senator Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who worked on the first version of the measure before his death in 2010. The bill was prompted by the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. It has failed to pass in every Congress since.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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