Mine Safety Bill Hearing Turns Into Witness Participation Debate

Republican members of the House Education and Labor Workforce Protections Subcommittee were at odds with Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., at the start of a July 26 hearing on new mine safety legislation, with both sides arguing over whether a representative from the National Mining Association should be invited to testify.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., expressed concern that not all of the “impacted stakeholders” were given the opportunity to weigh in on the potential ramifications of a second mine safety bill.

In a letter sent July 23 to Woolsey, Wilson said he found it “puzzling” that three labor unions, but not MSHA nor any representatives from the mining industry, were invited to testify at the hearing. (For more about Wilson’s letter, please read "Congressman Puzzled by MSHA Exclusion at Mine Safety Hearing" at http://www.occupationalhazards.com/News/Article/69632/Congressman_Puzzled_by_MSHA_Exclusion_at_Mine_Safety_Hearing.aspx. )

Despite Woolsey’s refusal to include a MSHA representative at the hearing, Wilson and Kline invited the federal mine safety agency to participate. However, at the beginning of the hearing, they also called for Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety, health and human resources for the National Mining Association, to join the panel.

After a party-line vote, the Democrats defeated Wilson’s request.

“Unfortunately, this is the advantage of being in the majority,” said Woolsey. “Precedent says this is how we handle this. I can assure you that any written testimony will be taken seriously.”

“Years of Neglect” Mandates Further Action

A series of mining disasters taking place in the early months of 2006 have prompted legislators to take a hard look at the state of mine safety. As a result, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Responder Act was signed into law in 2006.

Yet, several Congressional leaders have stated that more provisions should be added since it has been “years of neglect and backsliding by [the Bush] administration and an industry that had become, by its own admission, overly complacent.”

On June 19, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER), which calls for stricter standards for allowable coal dust, a ban on the use of belt-airways for ventilation and protection for whistleblowers who report unsafe conditions. It also would require MSHA to test 5 percent of self-contained self-rescuers (SCSRs) every 6 months.

According to Dennis O’Dell, safety and health director for the United Mine Workers of America, the new legislation not only is a step in the right direction, but it also answers many of the pressing safety and health needs of miners.

“This legislation is important because it will help prevent dangerous situations from happening in the first place,” he said.

O'Dell also applauded the enhanced enforcement authority the new legislation would provide MSHA, but warned the legislation is only effective if it is imposed. “Irresponsible coal operators need to know that MSHA is serious about enforcing all the laws on the books and also enforcing penalties for noncompliance.”

MSHA: New Bill Would Weaken Agency Standards

MSHA’s administrator for coal mine safety and health, Kevin Stricklin, said he was doubtful of the effectiveness of the new bill, saying several of the provisions in the new bill either would be problematic to implement or actually weaken current safety and health standards administered by MSHA.

For example, requiring monitoring for all sealed-off areas in mines would be tricky, Stricklin said. Available high psi-rated seals would not require extra monitoring, but since the new legislation would mandate monitoring no matter how strong the seals are, mine operators would just build seals at a lower strength.

In addition, regulation requiring MSHA to test at least 5 percent of the SCSRs available every 6 months would require MSHA to remove approximately 20,000 of the breathing devices per year for testing, which would mean that the units wouldn’t be available in the mines for miners to use, he said.

“Never Too Early”

One of the biggest objections posed by the opposition is that it is too early to tell if a supplemental bill is needed or not since MSHA and mining industry associations are in the process of putting the provisions of the current law in place.

However, O’Dell stated that it can never be too early to pass the bill since it wasn’t until 2006 that major changes have been made to mine safety laws since 1977.

“Should we wait another 29 years and let more miners die, or should we be, as this new legislation suggests, proactive and prevent more deaths and injuries?” he asked.

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