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updated 4/27/2010 7:05:02 PM ET 2010-04-27T23:05:02

The government will start going directly to federal court to shut down mines that make a habit of ignoring safety, the nation's top mine safety official told lawmakers Tuesday.

Joe Main, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said his agency has had the power to seek federal injunctions for years, but has never tried to use it.

"I can't speak for past administrations," Main said during the Senate's first hearing on the accident that killed 29 men. "We're going to use it."

Main also called for a slew of other legal and regulatory reforms to beef up safety enforcement in the wake of this month's deadly explosion at a mine in West Virginia.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee convened the hearing to look at weaknesses in current laws that encourage mine operators and companies in other industries to challenge safety violations to delay stiffer penalties.

Victims attend hearing
More than a dozen family members of the victims of past coal mine accidents clutched pictures of their loved ones as they sat in the hearing room.

"There is unfortunately a population of employers that prioritize profits over safety and knowingly and repeatedly violate the law," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the committee chairman.

Harkin called the accident at the Upper Big Branch mine "a tragic example of the dangers of this approach."

The mine, owned by Massey Energy Co., was repeatedly cited for problems with its methane ventilation system and other issues in the months leading up to the accident. One category of serious violations was nearly 19 times higher than average.

But Main said Massey used a tactic popular with some companies to avoid being placed on notice of a "pattern of violation" that could result in tougher enforcement. Mining companies are contesting hundreds of citations, creating a backlog that is overwhelming government officials. The massive backlog often delays a finding of a pattern of violation.

Three Massey coal mines in the past month were evacuated after anonymous complaints about dangerous conditions, federal officials said Tuesday. Three surprise inspections resulted in citations for what MSHA called serious violations. The mines included Massey subsidiary Independence Coal Co.'s Cook Mine in Boone County, W.Va., the Spartan Mining Co.'s Road Fork No. 51 Mine in Wyoming County and Inman Energy's Randolph Mine in Boone County.

The company said it had fired or suspended several employees as a result of the issues found at the mines.

Lawmakers heard from a coal miner who said he used to work at the Upper Big Branch mine but quit because he claimed Massey tolerated unsafe working conditions.

Jeffrey Harris, of Beckley, W.Va., said mine workers would take a number of gas monitors to check for gas levels, but only report the lowest reading.

Miner: Massey tolerated unsafe conditions
"They would take air readings until they got the right one," Harris said.

Harris said workers would tear down ventilation curtains and rehang them only when inspectors came. Workers also shut down equipment when inspectors were at the mine so they couldn't take readings while they were mining, he said.

In a statement, Massey called Harris' statements "difficult to believe" and said he raised no concerns while he worked for the company.

Main said he plans new rules to simplify the way his agency determines whether a mine has a pattern of violations. He also called for new laws that would grant MSHA power to subpoena documents during its investigations, enhance criminal penalties for egregious violators and protect whistleblowers.

Mining industry spokesman Bruce Watzman said there is no need for new regulations because MSHA already has the enforcement tools it needs. MSHA can use its existing authority to close mines for imminent danger or seek federal injunctions to shut down problem mines, he said.

Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, called for a new, cooperative emphasis on safety programs and warned that "regulations alone aren't sufficient to bring about continued improvement."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said it's unfortunate that lawmakers often react to the latest disaster when deciding to improve worker safety laws.

"But it's a heck of a motivator and it makes us do things that we otherwise might not have done," Rockefeller said.

Union: Hold CEOs accountable
United Mine Workers union president Cecil Roberts said he wants CEOs and corporate boards of directors held accountable for work sites that repeatedly violate safety and health rules.

"There's no question in my mind that people at the very top and the board of directors knew the company was in this kind of shape," Roberts said. He accused Massey of operating under a rule of "fear and intimidation" to prevent workers from speaking out about safety problems.

The hearing did not focus on the specific cause of the mine explosion, which is still being investigated.

Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship was not at the hearing Tuesday, but his company has defended its safety record.

The committee is also examining safety problems in other dangerous industries in the wake of a Washington state oil refinery blast earlier this month that killed six workers. David Michaels, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, discussed stepped-up enforcement to improve workplace safety.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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