Hearing: MSHA Falling Short of MINER Act

March 29, 2007
At a recent House hearing, coal miners, union officials and families of coal mining accident victims testified that MSHA has not stayed true to its promise of improving mine safety as stipulated in the recent Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act.

MSHA critics at the hearing urged leaders of Congress to stiffen federal mine safety laws by mandating more inspections, methane detectors and better education and training.

“It is important that Congress oversees MSHA so that the agency makes the improvements as mandated in the MINER Act and I don't think improvements have been made,” said Deborah Hamner, whose husband died in the Sago Mine disaster. “ ... Congress must ensure funding for mine inspectors and mine inspections. MSHA must quit reducing fines and must do a better job of collecting fines. MSHA must have the ability to shut down mines not in compliance.”

House Education and Labor Committee chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said he will continue to hold hearings on coal mine safety and make sure that MSHA lives up to its part of the bargain.

“Under the Bush administration, MSHA has rolled back safety and health rules, and has shifted its focus away from enforcing the law and toward so-called 'voluntary compliance assistance,'” Miller said. “When MSHA fails to fulfill its obligations, fails to establish and revise rules for safer mining in a timely way, fails to ensure that each mine operator has a plan that fully implements these rules or fails to enforce these rules with trained inspectors and meaningful sanctions, then miners' lives are put at unacceptable risk."”

MSHA Doesn't Have “Guts to Hold Hearings”

Kentucky miner Charles Scott Howard testified that he has been fired twice for voicing safety concerns to his supervisors. He lamented that the only ones who have voices are the coal operators.

“Laws have been passed to make it safer. But laws don't mean nothing when you go back down underground,” Howard said.

Howard's attorney, Tony Oppegard, said that MSHA, despite having the power to subpoena coal operators who present flagrant violations, “doesn't have the will or the guts to hold hearings.”

According to Oppegard, the state of Kentucky has taken steps to institute a state law that is one of the toughest on the books, exceeding federal standards. It would require:

  • Six inspections per year, including an electrical one.
  • Two mine emergency technicians at every mine.
  • Operators to notify the state 48 hours in advance if they plan to do retreat mining and to certify that miners have proper training in the extremely risky practice.
  • Pre-shift examinations at every surface mine.

The law also would allow the state to issue subpoenas to investigate allegations of unsafe conditions whether an accident has occurred or not.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 requires every underground mine to be inspected four times per year and surface mines twice.

Industry Officials: Progress Is Being Made

Mine industry officials defended the state of mine safety.

Jim Dean, chairman of West Virginia’s Mine Safety Technology Task Force, updated the committee on his state’s implementation of West Virginia Senate Bill 247 (S.B. 247), which was passed last year to improve post-accident mine safety. Dean’s nine-member task force is charged with exploring new mine safety technologies and related equipment and making recommendations on their use in coal mines.

“Most of the requirements set forth on the state level through S.B. 247 are currently being implemented consistent with state compliance schedules,” Dean said. “For instance, plans for emergency shelters are due April 15 and plans for emergency communications and miner tracking devices are due July 31 of this year.”

Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety and health for the National Mining Association (NMA), described efforts taken by the mining industry to bolster mine safety awareness by conducting MINER Act workshops throughout the country

Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the committee, expressed the hope that the implementation of the MINER Act would remain on schedule and pledged continued oversight on the issue.

McKeon added that he doesn't have any tolerance for “people who put people's safety in jeopardy and know that they are doing it.”

“Just as my colleagues do, I am hopeful that this law can and will be implemented just as quickly as possible,” McKeon said. “And in the months ahead, just as we demonstrated last year, I’m convinced our committee will continue to track this issue closely and fairly, with the attention it deserves and with an eye toward all stakeholders.”

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