Federal Lawmakers on Mine Reform: The 'Foot Dragging' Has to Stop

Lawmakers from the House and Senate are urging their colleagues in Congress to pass mine safety reform bills introduced just a few days before a May 20 explosion killed five Kentucky coal miners.

Members of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on May 17 unanimously passed a mine safety reform bill spurred by the Sago and Alma mine tragedies in West Virginia, and the bill now awaits the approval of the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on May 16 introduced its own mine safety reform legislation, and Rep. George Miller, D.-Calif., the committee's ranking Democrat, asserted: "This is clearly an emergency."

"In light of this most recent tragedy, it would be criminal neglect for the U.S. Congress to continue to fail to pass mine safety reform legislation," Miller said. "The foot dragging has got to stop."

Senate Bill Proposes Bigger Fines, More Protections

S. 2803, the "Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006" (MINER Act), proposes to increase criminal fines for mine safety violations, require all covered mines to develop written emergency response plans and strengthen protections for coal miners for example, by mandating that miners carry a 2-hour supply of emergency oxygen, up from the current requirement of 1 hour among other provisions.

"This bill is the product of work across party lines to find practical and innovative solutions to enhance mine safety," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the HELP committee and sponsor of the bill. "Our goal has been to move the industry to create mine-specific emergency response plans that incorporate safety and technology provisions that will enhance mine safety and better protect workers who put themselves in harm's way to provide our nation's energy."

The MINERS Act proposes to:

  • Require each covered mine to develop and continuously update a written emergency response plan.
  • Require each mine's emergency response plan to be continuously reviewed, updated and re-certified by MSHA every 6 months.
  • Require each mine to have two experienced rescue teams capable of a 1-hour response time.
  • Raise the criminal penalty cap to $250,000 for first offenses and $500,000 for second offenses and raise the maximum civil penalty for flagrant violations to $220,000.
  • Give the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) the power to shut down a mine in cases that the mine operator has refused to pay a final order MSHA penalty.
  • Promote the use of equipment and technology that is currently commercially available.
  • Establish a competitive grant program for new mine safety technology to be administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
  • Establish an interagency working group to provide a means of sharing non-classified technology that would be applicable to mine safety.
  • Create a scholarship program available to miners and MSHA enforcement staff to head off an anticipated shortage in trained and experienced miners and MSHA enforcement agents.
  • Establish the Sago Mine Safety Grants program to provide training grants to better identify, avoid and prevent unsafe working conditions in and around mines.

"We cannot bring back the brave miners who have died this year," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking member of the HELP Committee. "But we can and must honor their memory by making all our miners safer. I will do everything I can to get this bill to the president's desk to be signed into law this year."

House Bill Calls for MSHA to Take a More Aggressive Approach

According to the bill's sponsors, H.R. 5389, the "Protecting America's Miners Act," addresses some of the key problems that have led to coal mining accidents, injuries and deaths such as a lack of safety and communication equipment and technology, inadequate rescue teams, MSHA's ineffective enforcement over the last 5 years and weak penalties for mine operators who repeatedly violate the law.

Among its proposed provisions, the bill calls for fines of up to $1 million for mine operators who repeatedly break safety regulations and for MSHA to take a more aggressive role in rulemaking and enforcement.

The bill would require:

  • Mine operators to implement better communications and tracking equipment, more oxygen supplies and underground refuge stations where miners can go while they away rescue.
  • Mine rescue teams to be familiar with the mines they cover, and mine rescue teams to be located within an hour of mines that have fewer than 36 miners.
  • The Labor Department to issue uniform rules for how a mine accident investigation must be conducted and for MSHA to formally consult with the families of fatally injured miners during an accident investigation.
  • MSHA to promptly issue new rules to address what the bill sponsors say are three of the most pressing hazards in coal mining: the flammability of conveyor belts, the effectiveness of coal mine seals and respirable coal dust.
  • The establishment of a user fee, paid by mining companies, to exclusively fund government compliance assistance. Under the bill, all other MSHA funding would have to be used for enforcement.

After the deaths of the five Kentucky coal miners on May 20, Miller issued "an urgent call for the House" to pass the bill before its Memorial Day break.

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