The Senate plans to explore weaknesses in federal mine safety laws when it convenes the first of a series of hearings this month on the deadly mining disaster in West Virginia.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin says the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will meet April 27 to look at whether the system encourages mine operators to challenge safety violations and delay penalties.
"What we will be looking at are weaknesses in our laws that provide incentives for employers to skimp and cut back on health and safety measures,'' Harkin, D-Iowa, said in an interview.
Harkin, who chairs the committee, said he doesn't expect the initial hearing to explore specific causes of the explosion that killed 29 mine workers.
There is no witness list yet, but it could be the first time that Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is called to testify about the accident at the Upper Big Branch mine his company owns.
President Barack Obama is meeting on Thursday with federal labor and mine safety officials to discuss preliminary data on what may have caused the accident.
Harkin said a future hearing by a panel that oversees the Labor Department budget will look at whether Congress has provided federal mine safety agencies enough money to process appeals. No date has been set for that hearing.
A key question will be how to curb the massive backlog of challenges to mine safety citations that is currently overwhelming the understaffed agency handling enforcement cases, Harkin said. Since 2006, the backlog of cases has jumped from roughly 2,700 cases to more than 16,000 now.
The Upper Big Branch mine was repeatedly cited for problems with its methane ventilation system and for allowing combustible dust to build up in the months leading up to the accident. But Massey filed legal challenges to many of those citations.
By tying up the violations in legal proceedings for months or years, Massey was able to delay the Mine Safety and Health Administration from using them in determining whether the mine showed a potential pattern of violations.
Blankenship has defended his company's record and disputed accusations from some miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
Harkin said the committee also expects to discuss a measure that stalled two years ago under opposition from the mining industry and the Bush administration.
The S-Miner Act would have given MSHA greater enforcement power to crack down on companies that show a pattern of violations. It passed the House in 2008, but it stalled in the Senate after the Bush White House threatened a veto.
Mine operators opposed the S-Miner Act at the time because they said they were still struggling to put in place the comprehensive changes demanded of earlier legislation passed in the wake of the 2006 Sago mine disaster, said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.
Popovich said the industry expects more congressional scrutiny of the regulations and the law to see where adjustments have to be made.
"Clearly we expect there to be a heightened scrutiny of how this process got to be so dysfunctional,'' Popovich said.