Rockefeller: Mine safety law will take ‘awful lot of praying' - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Rockefeller: Mine safety law will take ‘awful lot of praying'

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Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, has been working on behalf of coal miners since 1964 when he came to work in West Virginia as a VISTA worker.

Now, three years after one of the worst mining disasters in modern history, Rockefeller and those who have signed on fight for his safety bill, which has yet to pass. While there has been some progress, either directly through regulatory agencies or small amendments to other bills, the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act remains stalled in Congress. 

"I wanted to do work — I'm not a business person," Rockefeller said of his move here. "Coal operators will tell you that. I'm a people person and I basically see myself as a social worker to try to make life better in different ways."

After a Senate speech only a few months after Rockefeller took coal companies to task for being too aggressive in fighting government regulation, the soon-to-retire senator has carefully drawn a line between issues of the coal miner and the coal company. 

"Coal miners aren't a part of any of the problems we're facing," Rockefeller said. 

He points to companies like Consol Energy that support a culture of safety. Consol Energy, though it has recorded a mine death at one of its mines this year, strive to achieve not only no fatalities, but also zero injuries. 

"They think (safety), they talk it and they get good results because of it," Rockefeller said. "Others do only what they have to do and get away with." 

Rockefeller said coal miners deal with those issues largely because they have so few choices to work elsewhere. 

"There is, in our culture in Appalachia, sort of a tendency to do what you've been doing and change comes really hard," Rockefeller said. 

Rockefeller said sometimes miners themselves can be obstacles to implementing safety measures. Companies, he said, should take an active in role in training and educating miners to overcome those problems. 

"People don't like to be told to do what they ought not have to be told to do because they ought to be doing it on their own," Rockefeller said. "… When you tell them to do something they don't like it. The answer to that is, ‘too bad.'"

One of the major roadblocks to getting mine safety legislation, Rockefeller said, is a misunderstanding of the coal industry itself. With so few states producing coal, what's important to West Virginia doesn't necessarily resonate well in Washington. 

"Coal miners and coal mining is hard to understand; you've got to go underground," Rockefeller said. "There's not great understanding."

That reliance on the companies to police themselves, Rockefeller said, is the sort of thing that has allowed the disasters and individual deaths of coal miners to happen every year. 

"In the older days, the people who ran the mines had come up through the mines," Rockefeller said. "They'd been coal miners; they'd been fire bosses. … You didn't have to work with them as much. Not it's a distant decision from Wall Street." 

At far too many companies, Rockefeller believes, the disconnect between employees and profit make it to easy for management to become lackadaisical. 

"Unless you are connected somehow to your mine and to your miners beyond just little summer picnics — that's not it," Rockefeller said. "It's about caring, wandering around in the mines unannounced and encouraging your miners and retraining your miners."

Rockefeller, who already said he won't run again in 2014, said, "I'm going to have to do an awful lot of praying to get Republicans to go with it in the House and Senate."

"… We have a terrible political problem up here," Rockefeller said. " … It's very hard to get a minority party in the Senate and much more difficult in House to take coal mine safety as anything but something that should be left up to the coal mines and keep the government out of it."

That doesn't mean there hasn't been progress. Companies with repeated violations who are put on a pattern of violation notice status. Numerous issues with the program and getting a company identified in POV status was in the original bill, but was enacted by federal regulators. 

Rockefeller said the bill still puts the POV revisions in code. Another amendment required certain mine incidents to be reported in a Securities Exchange Commission after it was added to the Dodd Frank Act by Rockefeller. 

Much of the momentum and furor for mine safety in both Congress and the media weakened after the immediate wake of the explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 coal miners. Rockefeller said it's important to remember there are still risks and hazards every day, many similar to the same problems that existed at UBB. 

"That's so wrong and sometimes we in Congress do it," Rockefeller said. "It's maybe a part of human nature. Coal mining goes along and a disaster happens and you focus on that. It's part of human nature, but its wrong human nature. We should always be aware of when you can slip something into another bill." 

Rockefeller said he particularly finds the discovery of whistleblowers and who that provide advance notice of coming inspections are particularly offensive.

"It's the 18th Century if you don't have whistleblowers," Rockefeller said. He recalled a visit to Beckley where he encountered people who despite "very tall personalities" were "scared too stiff" to blow the whistle on their employers. 

"You just don't quit," Rockefeller said. "Never quit on the matter of mine safety. You can fail, they can block you, but you keep coming back."

Rockefeller said he will miss public policy when he leaves the Senate, but he won't miss what he says is a new kind of politics dedicated toward obstructing new laws. 

"I wish you could come up here and spend three days sitting in the Senate gallery watching the Senate do nothing," he said. "… What's happened to the American press? What's happened to the Congress?"