RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Also in the Senate today, a hearing that will be getting a lot of attention: A Senate panel holds the first congressional hearing into the April 5th explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

Just to remind you, 29 miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine. It was the worst mining disaster in four decades. The witnesses today will include officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA - it overseas the mine industry. But critics say it's been too timid in pursuing mine safety violations.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: At a solemn ceremony in the White House, the president addressed families of those killed in the mine accident. He vowed to strengthen the law to protect miners. The president was George Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We make this promise to American miners and their families: We'll do everything possible to prevent mine accidents and make sure you're able to return safely to your loved ones.

NAYLOR: That ceremony took place in 2006, in the aftermath of coal mine accidents that left 33 dead that year. Congress quickly passed and the president signed the Miner Act, that, among other things, increased penalties for mine safety violations.

Now, as Congress prepares to take another look at legislation, attention is focused on whether MSHA, the federal agency that oversees mine safety, needs more tools or needs to better use the ones it has.

Celeste Monforton worked at MSHA during the Clinton and both Bush administrations and now teaches at George Washington University. Monforton thinks the law is adequate, but says an anti-regulatory climate in Washington has led to lax enforcement.

Professor CELESTE MONFORTON (Former MSHA Employee; George Washington University): You have an agency that gets weak in the knees in terms of really strongly enforcing the law, and the tendency is to try to work things out behind closed doors, negotiate deals, rather than using the big stick.

NAYLOR: And the big stick would be to close the mine?

Prof. MONFORTON: To close a mine down.

NAYLOR: MSHA has the authority to shut down a portion of a mine if it determines there is a pattern of safety violations. And it also can seek a court injunction to temporarily close a mine. But it's rarely used those powers. Instead, starting in 1990, the agency began issuing warning letters to notify mine operators they're at risk of being closed, what's known as being on a pattern.

Attorney Tony Oppegard is a former MSHA official who's representing some of the relatives of victims of a 2006 Kentucky mine accident.

Mr. TONY OPPEGARD (Attorney): So you have these two powerful tools in your arsenal that you're not using, and then you wonder why a mine blows up.

NAYLOR: Jonathan Snare, a Washington, D.C. attorney who worked in the Labor Department's solicitor's office during the Bush administration, says the warning letters were a useful way to get mining companies to correct their violations.

Mr. JONATHAN SNARE (Attorney): And they either took these steps to the satisfaction of MSHA, who went back to verify, or they were going to be then put on the pattern which could have led to other sanctions, including the mine being closed. There was a view that the first round, at least, had been successful because these mines that had been ignoring their issues fixed them and solved their safety issues.

NAYLOR: But coal companies have the right to appeal serious citations, and they have, to the extent that there is a backlog of some 16,000 cases. Massey Energy Company, operator of the Upper Big Branch Mine, contested 97 percent of the serious violations against it in 2007, according to MSHA.

Democratic Congressman George Miller of California says the system is broken.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): This is a system that was built up over years. I've tried to reform it. We've had some success, but almost every time in this legislation, the mining industry more or less wins out because they always weaken the bill. I think we ought to use this as an opportunity in the tragic deaths of these miners and the outrageous behavior by some of these mine companies to try and see if we can do a first-class job of reforming the law.

NAYLOR: It's unclear just now what legislation is likely to come out of the renewed focus on mine safety. In a statement, the Department of Labor has called for strengthening MSHA's capacity to investigate, prevent and punish dangerous wrongdoing, as well as bringing cases to justice with greater speed and certainty. Others have called for giving the agency subpoena powers it now lacks.

Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association, an industry lobbying group, cautions against a rush to new regulations.

Mr. BRUCE WATZMAN (National Mining Association): I would hope that at a minimum - before there are new regulations, before there's consideration of new legislation - that we allow this investigation to proceed. We need facts to make educated choices, and in the absence of that, we're all speculating as to what occurred and what the necessary solutions are.

NAYLOR: Attorney Tony Oppegard says the shackles have to be taken off the new MSHA chief, Joe Main, a former United Mine Workers union official.

Oppegard says it's unfortunate it took a disaster to bring renewed attention to the issue.

Mr. OPPEGARD: That's the history of coal mining legislation in the United States. It's always born out of disaster, and as it's said, the safety laws are always written with the blood of miners. That's what it takes.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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