At a hearing held March 2 by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to discuss the state of mine safety, senators from the oversight committee as well as Sen. Hilary Clinton D-N.Y., Sen. Edward M. Kennedy D-Mass., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. were present to voice their concern about the issue.
In an impassioned statement, Kennedy said that fines as low as $60 give companies "little incentive to make safety improvements." He added that while he understands MSHA is proposing to raise the maximum fines from $60,000 to $220,000, "such gestures are meaningless unless MSHA actually issues those fines."
Michael E. Neason, a representative from the American Society of Safety Engineers, argued that increasing maximum penalties would actually be a hindrance as it could put the average, well-meaning mine out of business with a single penalty.
Kennedy noted that MSHA rarely used the maximum fine of $60,000, issuing only 37 fines at the maximum level since 2001. MSHA too, has failed to use their "enforcement tool" of shutting down mines where there "have been a pattern of violations," he said.
"It's time the agency did more about chronic and persistent violations, including dangerous mines, before tragedies like those at Sago and Alma can occur," he said.
Before the Sago Mine disaster, which left 12 miners dead on Jan. 3, the operator reportedly received over 200 safety citations in the past year, half of them being serious enough to potentially lead to injuries.
David G. Dye, acting assistant secretary of MSHA, said in response that the agency had collected $25 million in fines last year and reductions were the result of actions taken by independent administrative law judges. He also said that the 1977 Mine Act "does not give MSHA the authority to preemptively close entire mines because of the frequency of violations."
Sen. Robert C. Byrd D-W.Va,, who grew up in a coal-mining community, repeatedly pressed Dye on why a proposed rule to give the nation's coal miners additional emergency oxygen has been delayed by the White House review process.
"It's been 25 years since mine safety rules have been updated," he said. "How long do we have to wait?"
Dye, in turn, said he understood Sen. Byrd's impatience and that it should be a matter of days in which the new rules are published in the Federal Register.
One-Size-Fits-All Doesn't Always Work
Other issues such as bringing in new and updated technology as well as the issue of an increasingly aging mining workforce were brought up by Sen. Mike Enzi R-Wyo., chairman of the committee overseeing the hearing. He said that while it is important to develop legislation and reduce safety risks for miners, it is also important to avoid the "one-size-fits-all approach" to safety, which causes unintended consequences of stifling innovation and delaying the implementation of technology.
"There are challenges of implementing new and emerging mine safety technologies that we can address by legislative action, but some we cannot," he said. "Just as the perfect should never be the enemy of the good, the mandated should never be the enemy of innovation."
Technologies such as two-way phone communications, two-way text messages and portable oxygen devices have been introduces as apparatuses could reduce deaths and improve safety overall. But Enzi cautioned to "keep in mind that mining environments vary considerably from mine to mine."
Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, agrees. "Each mine is different, even each coal mine is different, so each would need different mix of solutions," he said.
He also noted that the small industry size as well as the specialized requirements has made manufacturers hesitant to risk developing new products.
The hearing came to an emotional turning point when Cecil Roberts, director of the United Mine Workers Union, read a letter written by George Junior Hammer, one of the Sago miners who died, to his wife and kids. Roberts brought other miners as well as family of the miners killed recently in West Virginia and Alabama to "ensure that their loved ones did not die in vain."
"The government failed the Sago and Alma miners, and when it failed them it failed all miners," he said. "Senseless deaths and injuries must stop."