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W.Va. Lawmakers Press Chao on Mine Safety

Ten months after President George W. Bush signed a sweeping coal mine safety bill, critics – especially two West Virginia lawmakers – want to know why the Department of Labor has been “dragging its feet” in implementing the mine safety standards.

Democrat Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller – the two driving forces of the passage of the recently signed Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act – are pressing Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to accelerate implementation of the law, which was signed last June.

“Here we are, more than a year since the tragedies at Sago and at Alma, and 10 months since Congress passed new safety standards, yet the Department of Labor continues to blatantly disregard mandatory mine health and safety standards included in the MINER Act,” Byrd said. “This is inexcusable. Each day that passes without aggressive implementation of the new mine safety standards is another day where lives are unnecessarily placed at risk.”

The MINER Act, based on a proposal put forward by the West Virginia congressional delegation, promotes increased mine safety, better enforcement and faster rescue in case tragedy strikes. The senators wrote Chao to express their concern over the Department of Labor's insufficient implementation of the act.

“When Congress passed the MINER Act, we sent a clear message that, when it comes to the safety of our coal miners, the status quo is no longer acceptable,” Rockefeller said. “... Coal miners in West Virginia and across the country deserve better from this administration, and I encourage Secretary Chao to move quickly to implement these necessary safety measures.”

According to the two senators:

  • MSHA has not fully approved a single mine’s emergency response plan. Forty-three thousand coal miners are working under partially approved emergency response plans.
  • MSHA has not yet approved any wireless communications and tracking technology for use underground.
  • Miners still do not have adequate oxygen supplies underground. One-third of coal mines do not provide at least two self-rescue devices for each underground worker.
  • Only 145 mine rescue teams are available to serve 481 active underground coal mines. MSHA still does not ensure that underground mines have flame-resistant lifelines in escapeways.

MSHA Has “Worked Tirelessly”

MSHA contends that the agency has “worked tirelessly to ensure that every requirement be fulfilled by the dates Congress set” since the MINER Act was enacted.

“We have successfully implemented many of those requirements already – most recently we revamped and strengthened the civil penalty provisions – and will continue in our efforts to meet every other deadline that Congress provided,” MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler said.

Last week, MSHA fined Massey Energy Co. $1.5 million for ignoring safety hazards that allegedly existed in its Aracoma Alma Mine. The company is expected to appeal the fine.

Investigators found that negligence at Alma led to the underground mine fire that killed two miners in January 2006. The investigation also allegedly turned up a host of other egregious violations that were never corrected.

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