By Jody Brumage
Forty years ago, Congress passed the most comprehensive set of laws seeking to improve working conditions and benefits for miners in the United States. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 was built on the foundation of several important legislative achievements in the long effort to make mining a safer industry. This act brought several different regulations and oversight groups under one organizational structure and improved the safety net for miners who suffered the ramifications of this dangerous occupation, such as respiratory illnesses like Black Lung.
Following another major mining accident, the Farmington Mine Disaster of 1968, Congress felt the pressure to make meaningful and lasting changes for miners. West Virginia’s congressional delegation took a leading role in driving important bills through the House and Senate to enhance workplace safety and benefits. In 1969, Congressman Ken Hechler successfully steered the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety bill through the House. Once passed by the Senate and signed by President Nixon, the bill created the first mandated mine inspections and gave the responsibility of enforcing safety standards to the Department of the Interior. Three years later, Senator Robert C. Byrd introduced amendments in the Senate to strengthen the 1969 law by mandating more benefits for miners who suffered from Black Lung. The “Black Lung Benefits Act” was signed by President Nixon in 1972.
One of the most controversial elements of the bill was the transfer of regulatory oversight from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Labor. In 1973, the Department of the Interior formed the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration, but some in the industry worried that the department’s focus on energy (the Department of Energy was not created until 1978) would lead to weak enforcement of the safety regulations of the 1969 and 1972 laws. A memo from one of Senator Byrd’s staffers explains that the transfer was necessary in order to keep the regulatory oversight focused on workers. This measure was supported by the United Mine Workers of America, the primary labor union for coal miners. Local chapters sent petitions to Senator Byrd expressing their concerns for the current enforcement situation.
In the forty years since this legislation was passed, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act has continued to enforce safety regulations and miner benefit programs. The Mine Safety and Health Administration maintains a significant presence in West Virginia today; its safety training academy is located in Raleigh County and the administration has safety laboratories and facilities in other parts of the state as well. West Virginia’s role in this story is an important one, both as the scene of the major disasters which provided the pressure for the federal government to act, and for the influence its congressional leaders had on gaining passage of vital laws for protecting our country’s miners.