Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., ranking member of the HELP Committee's Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, participated in a hearing that discussed progress in mine safety since the January 2006 Sago Mine explosion, which claimed the lives of 12 miners.
Both legislators stated that the MINER Act, signed by President George W. Bush in June 2006, has boosted mine safety.
“Mining presents unique safety challenges,” Enzi said. “The problems are complex, the solutions varied and the risk of unintended consequence substantial. The MINER Act, which we passed into law last year, has been successful in addressing these challenges to improve mine safety and save lives.”
“We have made great progress over the last year, and we will continue to work toward the day that every miner returns home to the arms of their loved ones safely,” Isakson said. “I’m pleased that much has changed since the tragic events of 2006, and I firmly believe the legacy of the Sago tragedy is to follow the lessons we have learned so that future generations of miners do not suffer the same fate.”
MINER Act Designed to Evolve with Technology
According to the two senators, standards in the act were designed to evolve with new advances in mine safety technology as well as to encourage the development of better miner-protecting technologies. Isakson said he is particularly impressed with the advances toward a new self-contained self-rescue (SCSR) unit that allows a miner to switch to a secondary supply of breathable air without removing the mouthpiece from his original supply of oxygen.
Since the passage of the MINER Act, 86,000 new SCSR units have been placed into service, and more than 100,000 are scheduled to be added in the next few months. In addition, all of the nation’s 55,000 underground coal miners have and will continue to receive detailed training on the use of these life-saving devices.
According to the senators, all underground coal mines have been required to submit emergency response plans and have submitted plans to provide entrapped miners with sufficient quantities of breathable air. The senators also noted that mines have installed lifelines and other escape assistance, while some 36 new mine rescue teams have been established already.
Stickler: MSHA Is Meeting MINER Act Requirements
In a separate statement, MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler commented that the agency has made strides since 1 year ago, when the agency issued a program information bulletin banning the construction of any new alternative seals. Currently, underground seals are required to be much stronger than they were one year ago, Stickler said.
“MSHA has put in place many meaningful protections for miners in the past year, and we continue working diligently to fully implement the MINER Act," Stickler said. “The MINER Act gave MSHA additional tools to help improve mine safety nationwide, and we are working hard to get these protections in place for America's miners.”
“We are meeting our MINER Act deadlines,” he added.
According to MSHA, the agency has implemented the act's provisions by:
- Establishing new maximum penalties for flagrant violations.
- Issuing an ETS to increase the strength of seals in underground coal mines to 120 pounds per square inch (psi), and requiring environments behind 50 psi seals to be monitored and maintained inert, 7 months before the deadline imposed by Congress.
- Requiring more SCSR units in every underground coal mine.
- Requiring fire-resistant lifelines in all underground coal mines.
- Mandating additional safety training and training on the use of SCSR units at underground coal mines.
- Requiring redundant underground-to-surface communications systems in underground coal mines.
- Requiring all underground coal mines to submit emergency response plans that include, among other things, post-accident breathable air for trapped miners.
MSHA Critics: Agency Moving at “Snail's Pace”
During a May 16 hearing held that also discussed the progress MSHA is making on the MINER Act, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., asserted that the agency is moving at a “snail's pace.”
“ ... Under the current Administration, we have seen plenty of examples where MSHA has not used its authority to aggressively protect miners,” Miller said. “It’s clear that MSHA sometimes needs a push from Congress. Last year’s MINER Act was one such push.”
A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), also on May 16, concluded that MSHA needs to increase its mine safety oversight and that MSHA's standards are “inconsistent, and it has no continuing education requirements for instructors.”
The report also stated that MSHA does not keep up-to-date records on its training instructors and that the agency does not have continuing education requirements for instructors. (For more, read “GAO Report Rips MSHA Oversight.”)