WASHINGTON - Deaths and injuries in the nation's mines, including its coal mines, fell in 2012 to some of their lowest recorded levels, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported.
MSHA released its preliminary data on the eve of the third anniversary of the worst recent disaster, the April 2010 explosion and fire that killed 29 coal miners at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine. MSHA's report also comes just after pro-worker House Democrats reintroduced their legislation strengthening MSHA.
Thirty-five miners died on the job last year, the agency said, including 19 in coal mines. The overall number tied a record low set in 2009. The coal mine deaths were the second-lowest number on record, behind only 2009, when 18 miners died.
"These preliminary numbers clearly show actions by MSHA and the industry continue to move mine safety in the right direction, with improvements in compliance with the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, and a reduction in injury and fatality rates," said MSHA Administrator Joseph Main, a former Mine Workers safety expert.
But Main said the fight for mine safety must continue. He strongly supported the House Democrats' legislation.
"The third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch tragedy is just days away. We are mindful of the role strong laws and dogged enforcement play in keeping our miners safe, and we support mine safety legislation that will give MSHA additional tools to carry out its mission and bring miners home to their loved ones after every shift," he said.
And MSHA data so far this year show rising numbers of deaths in the nation's mines: 12 overall, and two-thirds of them in coal mines. Six of the coal mine deaths were in February alone, with four of them in West Virginia, Main said.
"All of us who oversee mine safety and health in West Virginia - and, indeed, all the mines throughout this nation - must take immediate action to alert the mining community to this escalating problem," he added.
"I directed MSHA personnel - inspectors, supervisors and managers - to travel throughout West Virginia to alert miners, miners' representatives, supervisors and operators to this alarming development and to distribute detailed information about these fatalities and ways to prevent them.
Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, a West Virginian, used the anniversary of Upper Big Branch to again slam Congress for inaction on mine safety.
"As we mark this third anniversary of the terrible tragedy at Upper Big Branch, let us first and foremost keep the families of the victims in our hearts and prayers. Their grief is never-ending, their loss is still as raw as it was that terrible day.
"It is a travesty that we have reached this point so long after this tragedy occurred and Congress still has not done anything to improve mine safety and health laws, so other families won't have to suffer as the Upper Big Branch families have.
"We heard repeatedly...after the disaster that action would be taken in Congress after all the facts about what caused it were in. That proved to be false. Miners and their families need more than lip service. They need action.
"As the criminal investigation continues to climb the corporate ladder at the former Massey Energy, miners everywhere continue to hope that those responsible not just for the conditions that led to the blast itself are brought to justice, but also that those who created and condoned the corporate culture of putting production first and safety last are charged, tried and sent to jail as well. They bear the ultimate responsibility for this tragedy."
Photo: A miner's boots, helmet, and gloves at a memorial for the 29 miners who died in an explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. The Miners' union, the UMWA, says that there is still much to be done to ensure that there is never a repeat of that disaster. Amy Sancetta/AP