House Passes Mine Safety Bill Despite Veto Threats

Ignoring veto threats from the White House, House Democrats approved a sweeping mine safety bill to help prevent future mining disasters, improve emergency response and reduce long-term health risks such as black lung disease.

The measure, H.R. 2768, the Supplementary Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (S-MINER) Act, was introduced after an explosion at Crandall Canyon Mine entombed nine Utah miners in August 2007. Three rescuers died while attempting retrieve the miners’ bodies.

“It is critical that Congress take this action, because one thing is clear: We cannot leave mine safety and health to the Bush administration,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and co-sponsor of the bill. “We owe it to the loved ones of miners who died on the job to pass these protections today.”

Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., also a member of the committee, said the legislation will be a good supplement to the Mine Improvement and Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006, which, according to him, “failed to fully address the needs of our miners.”

The vote, however, fell short of what Democrats needed to block a threatened veto from President George W. Bush. The bill now awaits Senate approval.

S-MINER Act to Enhance Current Mine Safety Bill

Specifically, the bill, which is designed to build on reforms adopted in 2006 and 2007, aims to:

  • Add new safeguards for the dangerous “retreat mining” practice.
  • Strengthen standards to contain explosions and fires inside mines.
  • Strengthen the enforcement abilities of MSHA, in part by giving the agency subpoena authority.
  • Increase certain penalties against mine operators that violate the law.
  • Create a miner ombudsman’s office to handle safety complaints from miners.
  • Require MSHA to develop a plan to better coordinate with state and local authorities.
  • Establish rules for independent investigations of mining disasters.
  • Improve safety technology in the mines, including better tracking and communications equipment, more reliable air supplies and the installation of refuge chambers where trapped miners can safely await rescue.
  • Strengthen rules to better inform miners of the health risks they face.

Mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, with a fatality rate more than seven times higher than the average for all private industries. According to MSHA, 64 miners died on the job in 2007.

White House, Mining Regulator Consider Bill Unnecessary

Not everyone supports the S-MINER Act. The White House opposes the bill and threatens to veto it. In a statement, a White House official said S-MINER "would place in jeopardy meaningful achievements and efforts currently under way" required by the 2006 MINER bill.

The National Mining Association views the new measure as a premature regulation heaped on top of another mine safety bill.

“U.S. mining operations have made significant safety improvements and investments to implement the [MINER] Act of 2006, and we share the concern expressed by many safety experts that H.R. 2768 will divert industry and regulatory resources from the important task of fully implementing and assessing the MINER Act,” said Kraig Naasz, president and CEO of the National Mining Association.

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