Mining Tragedies Spur Federal Legislation

The recent spate of coal mining tragedies has spurred West Virginia lawmakers to propose federal mine safety legislation that would ratchet up the minimum fines for safety violations and require coal operators to store emergency supplies of air and breathing equipment within their mines.

The bipartisan legislation, which was introduced into the Senate and House of Representatives earlier this month by West Virginia's delegation of lawmakers, also calls for MSHA to set up a rapid notification and response system for mine operators to "expeditiously" notify MSHA of emergencies or subject themselves to a $100,000 fine.

"The longer we wait to approve this legislation, the more likely it is that additional miners will die," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said. "If more miners die, then more mines could be closed, and for longer periods of time, in order to ensure safety. Mine closures not only will put families out of work, but will also disrupt coal and energy production, with the economic effects rippling across the national economy."

Byrd introduced the Senate version of the "Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 2006" S. 2231 along with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a fellow West Virginia Democrat.

The state's delegation to the House of Representatives Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrats Allan Mollohan and Nick Rahall introduced H.R. 4695, which is the identical House version.

Bill Would Create Miner Ombudsman Position

The bill introduced by the West Virginia delegation also calls for:

  • MSHA to make sure that its rescue procedures, training and equipment and organization of rescue teams are adequate;
  • Mine operators to maintain on-call rescue teams and have in place a communication plan in the event of a rescue operation;
  • Mine operators to implement a communication and electronic tracking system to locate and communicate with miners underground during rescue operations;
  • The Department of Labor to nullify an MSHA rule issued in 2004 that authorizes the use of belt entries for ventilation, which the bill's sponsors assert may have caused the fire that led to two deaths at the Alma Mine near Mellville, W.Va., in January.
  • The creation of a science and technology transfer office within MSHA to pull research and development ideas from other federal agencies that might benefit mine safety and health;
  • The establishment of a miner ombudsman position within the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Labor. The miner ombudsman, which would be appointed by the president, would establish a toll-free telephone number and Web site for miners to confidentially report mine safety and health violations.

"Through this legislation, we can begin to take the steps needed to prevent the type of mine tragedies that have recently befallen our state," Capito said. "I look forward to supporting this bill as it moves forward in Congress."

MSHA Hopes to Fast-Track Temporary Standard

About a week after the West Virginia delegation unveiled its proposed legislation, MSHA announced that it plans to engage a rarely used emergency rulemaking procedure to strengthen mine safety practices in the areas of training, accident notification requirements, self-contained rescue devices and lifelines.

The emergency temporary standard would:

  • Require mine operators to maintain additional SCSRs for each miner underground in a storage area and would require that they be readily accessible for miners in the event of an emergency.
  • Require mine operators to install lifelines in all primary and alternate escape routes out of the mine.
  • Require operators to conduct training for miners in how to transfer from one SCSR to another. This training would be reinforced during mine emergency evacuation drills held on a quarterly basis.
  • Further define what constitutes "immediately contact" after an accident, to require mine operators to inform MSHA of an accident within 15 minutes of its occurrence.

The emergency temporary standard takes effect immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, although the agency has not said when the publication date is. This is only the third time since 1978 that MSHA has pursued an emergency temporary standard, according to the agency.

"We are using the emergency temporary standard to get help into the field as fast as possible," MSHA Acting Administrator David Dye said. "MSHA is moving forward on every front to better protect miners' safety and health."

Rockefeller: MSHA's Proposals 'Only a First Step'

While West Virginia's Rockefeller praised MSHA for its intention to fast-track emergency regulations, he told Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in a letter that "your proposed changes constitute only a first step toward an adequate level of safety for America's miners."

"To continue on this path, I would suggest using your existing statutory authority to expedite action on all provisions in the legislation I introduced jointly with Sen. Byrd and our West Virginia House colleagues earlier this month," Rockefeller wrote. " … On behalf of miners in West Virginia and throughout the United States, I urge you to seriously consider including all of the provisions in the legislation introduced by the West Virginia delegation in any emergency rulemaking you should publish."

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