April 21, 2016

Manchin hoping for success with more focused mine safety bill | Charleston Gazette-Mail

Sen. Joe Manchin is working on a more narrow mine safety bill that would focus only on increasing the prison time and fines for anyone convicted of criminal safety and health violations like those involved in the case against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Manchin, D-W.Va., said that he still supports the passage of the entire Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Act that he co-sponsored, but that he’s trying to find a way around “congressional gridlock” that he says has hampered that bill’s progress.

“My hope is that given the national attention the disappointing one year sentencing of Don Blankenship has received, a bill that narrowly focuses on the tougher sentencing guidelines laid out in the broader bill will gain bipartisan support and move quickly through the appropriate committee,” Manchin said Thursday.

Efforts to toughen criminal penalties and make other mine safety improvements have languished for years, but have received at least some renewed interest in the wake of the Blankenship case.

Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Blankenship to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine, the maximum allowed under current law for the misdemeanor charge.

The legislation named for Byrd would, among other things, make it a felony to willfully violate mine safety and health standards when doing so “recklessly exposes a miner to significant risk of serious injury, serious illness or death.” The maximum sentence would be five years in prison and a $1 million fine.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has yet to take up the Byrd bill for a hearing or a vote.

By:  Ken Ward Jr.