Pass toughened mine safety rules

Investigators are still exploring the causes of an explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners in April.

But based on what's already known, Congress should enact mine safety legislation that got its first hearing before a House committee this week.

Especially critical are provisions that would shut down mines that have a pattern of serious safety violations and increase penalties for retaliating against miners who report dangerous conditions.

Everyone should remember, however, that worker safety laws are only as effective as the agencies that enforce them.

Unless the Mine Safety and Health Administration is revitalized, new laws won't make much difference.

After all, the authority to shut down mines that are chronic safety violators was bestowed on MSHA by Congress in 1977.

Yet the agency has consistently failed to use this powerful tool to protect workers.

While MSHA's never been a powerhouse, it was reduced during the eight Bush years, when Elaine Chao was labor secretary, to the coal industry's trick pony.

Joe Main, the former United Mine Workers Association safety official who is now head of MSHA, says the new law is needed to fill in gaps in MSHA's authority.

Main and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis must fill in the gaps in MSHA's capacity and commitment to enforce mine safety laws.