March 31, 2011

Manchin Offers Suggestions, Insight at Hearing on First Anniversary of Upper Big Branch Tragedy


Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) today questioned mine safety authorities about commonsense ways to improve safety and coordination between state and federal agencies to prevent tragedies like the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners nearly a year ago.

During a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing to examine efforts to improve mine safety in light of the anniversary, Senator Manchin recommended important mine safety improvements to Joe Main, Assistant Secretary for Labor for Mine Safety and Health, and Elliot Lewis, Assistant Inspector General at the Labor Department.

Although Senator Manchin is not a member of the committee, he was invited to participate because of his close connection to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which occurred when he was governor of West Virginia. Then-Governor Manchin spent five days at the site with the families of the victims, from just after he learned of the explosion to the end of the rescue and recovery operations.

Excerpts from his remarks are below.

“As we come up on our one-year anniversary, our hearts are still heavy, and we are still very much in contact with the families whose lives have been changed forever.

“Coal miners in West Virginia – and I am sure around the country – they are the soul of the earth. They are hard workers, they are patriotic people, they provide for their families, they work hard, they don’t ask for an awful lot. But what we do ask for is safe conditions. And I have told every miner, I don’t intend in West Virginia to have one miner in an unsafe condition. Nor should a family expect them not to return home safely.

“The bottom line is we need to fix things.”

During the questioning, Senator Manchin focused on better coordination between state and federal mine inspectors. He asked:

“What I hear from both the miners themselves and the operators is that there are two inspections going on.  And one might contradict the other.  And they might get very confused.  And I’ve even had miners tell me: ‘We’re told to do one thing one way and then either the state or federal follows up and they’re looking for something different.’  And it’s so confusing and it creates maybe an unsafe condition where they are both intending to create a safer condition.  I found a lack of sharing of information.  I know from the federal and our state in West Virginia — and I am sure other states might have the same concerns — they’re not sharing what they should be and we don’t know who’s coordinating inspections… We could help each other a lot more if we were sharing... Then we’d get the best bang for our buck.”

Among other issues, the Senator asked the following questions:

  • Regarding split missions for state and federal agencies: “Do you believe that it is time to basically have one agency doing training and one agency doing inspection?  Everyone is trying to do everything and I am sometimes finding out that we are not doing either one as well as we could or should.”
  • Regarding which agency has the primary oversight power: “If I have state law, and I have our inspectors, and we’re going out there because we live there, that’s us.  We’re right there every day.  Do we have primacy over that or does the federal have primacy?” 

For West Virginia television stations, footage of the Senator’s opening remarks is available on Pathfire.

Instructions for accessing Pathfire are available here: 

An FTP link is available here:

Audio is available here: