Senate Fast-Tracks Mine Safety Reform Bill

By unanimous vote, the U.S. Senate on May 24 approved the first major overhaul to mine safety in 28 years.

Introduced into the Senate on May 16, S. 2803 titled the "Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006" (MINER Act) was sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and originally was co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; and Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

"This year our nation has experienced tragic losses in the coal mines of West Virginia and Kentucky," Enzi said. "In passing the bill unanimously, the Senate has shown its commitment to ensuring that such tragedies will not be repeated. I urge the House to do the same by acting quickly on this important issue, so that we can send it to the president's desk for his signature."

Key provisions of the "MINER Act" will:

  • Require each covered mine to develop and continuously update a written emergency response plan.
  • Promote use of equipment and technology that is currently commercially available.
  • Require each mine's emergency response plan to be continuously reviewed, updated and re-certified by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) every 6 months.
  • Direct the secretary of Labor to require wireless two-way communications and an electronic tracking system within 3 years, permitting those on the surface to locate persons trapped underground.
  • Require each mine to make available two experienced rescue teams capable of a 1-hour response time.
  • Require mine operators to make notification of all incidents and accidents that pose a reasonable risk of death within 15 minutes, setting a civil penalty of $5,000 to $60,000 for mine operators who fail to do so.
  • Establish a competitive grant program for new mine safety technology to be administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
  • Establish an interagency working group to provide a formal means of sharing non-classified technology that would have applicability to mine safety.
  • Raise the criminal penalty cap to $250,000 for first offenses and $500,000 for second offenses, as well as raise the maximum civil penalty for flagrant violations to $220,000.
  • Give MSHA the power to request to shut down a mine in cases in which the mine operator has refused to pay a final order MSHA penalty.
  • Create a scholarship program available to miners and those who wish to become miners and MSHA enforcement staff to head off an anticipated shortage in trained and experienced miners and MSHA enforcement.
  • Establish the Brookwood-Sago Mine Safety Grants program to provide training grants to better identify, avoid and prevent unsafe working conditions in and around the mines. These grants will be made on an annual, competitive basis to provide education and training for employers and miners, with a special emphasis on smaller mines.

"By passing the MINER Act, the Senate will save lives," Byrd said. "It will save more coal mining families the heartache of losing their loved ones in a mining disaster. Many, if not all, of the coal mine deaths this year were preventable, if only miner safety were a higher priority.

So far this year in the United States, 33 coal miners have died on the job, compared to 22 in all of 2005. Nineteen of the coal mining deaths this year have been in West Virginia.

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