Panel to hold hearings on federal role in mine disaster

Senator says "there are tough questions to be asked" of Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., announced Monday that the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing Jan. 19 on the federal role in last week's deadly explosion at a West Virginia mine.

The hearings will be the first into the Jan. 2 explosion, which killed 12 miners at the International Mining Group's Sago Mine.

Byrd said he asked Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to schedule the hearing. Federal and state mining officials, as well as representatives of labor, business, and academia with expertise in mine safety, will be invited to testify.

"In Congress, there are tough questions to be asked of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Is enforcement of coal mining regulations tough enough? Are the regulations on the books today current enough to handle the challenges posed by 21st century coal mining? Are mine hazards being minimized? These and other issues demand scrutiny, and the miners' families deserve the answers," Byrd said.

Also Monday, West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III announced a state investigation to be headed by Davitt McAteer, MSHA head during the Clinton administration.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., announced Friday that he will hold an oversight hearing in March on mining safety and a confirmation hearing this month on Richard Stickler, President Bush's nominee to head MSHA. Enzi is working with HELP ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on setting a firm date for the March oversight hearings, Enzi's spokesman said.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, reportedly will wait until the Bush administration completes its probe before deciding whether to hold hearings. Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, whose district includes the Sago Mine, also wants to allow an investigation by the MSHA and the state before Congress holds hearings.

"She wants to get some factual information up front before we move forward with the hearings," Capito's spokesman said. In a Jan. 5 letter to Boehner, Capito echoed a separate request from West Virginia Democrats for hearings "at the earliest possible date" to investigate whether MSHA, which cited the Sago Mine for hundreds of safety violations in 2005, should have levied more costly penalties or forced the mine to close until safety concerns were resolved.

"It is crucial that we know whether the federal government performed its oversight role and used its authority to penalize the mine's owner for violations and to force major safety problems to be corrected," Capito wrote.

West Virginia Democratic Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, in a Jan. 4 letter to Boehner, said "miners have expressed fears that the agency's safety mission has been diluted by concerns about the cost to business, and that the agency is, in fact, rolling back safety and health gains made since its creation." The two Democrats also faulted Republicans for cutting MSHA's budget in fiscal 2006.

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