House Members Fail to Agree on Mine Safety Bill Before Memorial Day Break

In the wake of the Senate's unanimous passage of sweeping mine safety reform legislation, California Democrat George Miller and House Republicans are butting heads over what the House version of the bill should contain, and the fight has delayed any House action on mine safety reform until after its Memorial Day break.

On May 24, the Senate passed S. 2803 the "Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006" (MINER Act) which requires mine operators to develop a written emergency response plan, increases civil and criminal penalties and establishes a safety training grant program, among other provisions.

West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito on May 19 introduced an identical House version (H.R. 5432) of the bill. But Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce the House committee with jurisdiction over mine safety opposes Capito's bill because, he says, it does not go far enough to protect miners.

Miller, in a letter to House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., urges McKeon to add three amendments to Capito's House bill. The amendments would:

  • Mandate that miners be provided with no less than a 2-day supply of oxygen for emergencies.
  • Mandate, within 15 months, the use of communications and tracking devices to find and communicate with trapped miners; and
  • Require the Mine Safety and Health Administration to perform random field checks of miners' self-contained self-rescuers.

"Over the past 4 months, my colleagues and I have spent a good deal of time talking and meeting family members of miners who died at the Sago, Jim Walters and Aracoma Alma mines," Miller wrote in his letter to McKeon. "I believe they deserve legislation that assures them that these tragedies will not be repeated."

Miller spokesperson Tom Kiley said the congressman would vote against Capito's House version of the MINER Act if the act did not include Miller's three amendments.

"Rep. Miller believes the Senate act is a good one, but not good enough," Kiley said, adding that the ultimate test for Miller is whether he can go back to the families of fallen miners and assure them that he has done everything he can to protect miners in the future. "He doesn't believe the Senate bill passes that test for him."

In a letter posted on Miller's Web site, Paul Cranston, a Morgantown, W.Va., attorney representing the families of three of the 12 miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster earlier this year, contends that Miller's amendments are "common-sense measures and should be part of any legislation to address mine safety."

Capito: Miller's Actions 'Beyond Hypocritical'

In response to Miller's letter, McKeon urged Miller to drop his opposition to Capito's House mine safety bill. McKeon noted that Miller on May 20 the day that five Kentucky coal miners were killed in an explosion issued an "urgent call" to Congress to stop its "foot dragging" and pass mine safety reform legislation before the Memorial Day break, which began today and runs through June 5.

"I appreciate the points you have raised in today's letter, each of which has been addressed in the bipartisan Senate legislation," McKeon wrote in his letter, dated May 25. " … However, it would be irresponsible to halt solid, widely supported legislation that is one step away from arriving on President Bush's desk as Congress moves to recess for the Memorial Day holiday."

Meanwhile, Capito said that Miller's opposition to her House bill is "beyond hypocritical."

"This is a huge disappointment for miners who are relying on us to help protect them, and an injustice for the families of those who have died in mine tragedies across the country," Capito said. " … Today, we should be sending important mine safety legislation to the president to sign into law. Instead, we're at a standstill because of the personal politics of one member of Congress. I call on Mr. Miller to immediately drop his opposition to this important legislation and allow us to move it to the floor for passage."

Norwood Amendment Proposes Drug/Alcohol Testing

Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood, chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, yesterday introduced another mine safety reform bill that includes all the provisions of the Senate MINER Act plus four other provisions, including one that would mandate drug and alcohol testing for miners.

Miller said he also objects to Norwood's bill, because the provision requiring drug and alcohol testing "implies that [Norwood] believes that the miners themselves were responsible for these recent mining tragedies."

"This is an insult to the families of miners killed in accidents at Sago, Jim Walters, Aracoma Alma, Darby and other coal mines," Miller asserted.

A spokesperson for Norwood, however, said that the Norwood is urging his colleagues in the House to immediately pass Capito's mine safety bill and consider Norwood's bill at a later date.

"We need every miner in America to immediately call the offices of Mr. Miller and [California Democrat Nancy Pelosi] and demand they get out of the way of mine safety reform," Norwood said. "Bring up any bill you want, vote against this bill on the floor if you want, but stop playing games with miners' lives."

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