House Committee Passes S-MINER Act

By a vote of 26 to 18, the House Education and Labor Committee approved mine safety legislation that would speed up deadlines for several mine rescue requirements passed by Congress last year, and require more oversight by MSHA.

In addition, H.R. 2768, the Supplementary Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER), would help prevent mining disasters, improve emergency response when disasters do occur, and reduce long-term health risks, such as black lung disease, facing miners.

“This legislation represents a comprehensive approach to minimize the health and safety risks facing miners,” said Rep. George Miller D-Calif., chairman of the committee and a cosponsor of the bill. “Our aim is a simple one: We want to do everything we can to ensure that miners are able to return home safely at the end of their shifts.”

Mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations in America, with a fatality rate more than seven times higher than the average for all private industries. So far this year, 56 miners have died on the job in the United States. The measure builds on legislation signed into law in 2006 by addressing serious gaps in mine safety and health standards.

“With this legislation, we hope to prevent the appalling loss of life that we’ve had in the past couple of years – at Sago, Darby, Aracoma, and most recently Crandall Canyon in Utah,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey D-Calif., chair of the House Subcommittee on Workplace Protections.

Specifically, the S-MINER Act would:

  • Add new safeguards for a dangerous practice called “retreat mining.”
  • Strengthen standards to contain explosions and fires inside mines.
  • Strengthen the enforcement hand of MSHA, in part by giving the agency subpoena authority.
  • Increase certain penalties against mine operators that violate the law.
  • Create a miner ombudsman’s office to handle safety complaints from miners.
  • Improve emergency response in the event that a disaster does occur.
  • Require MSHA to develop a plan to better coordinate with state and local authorities.
  • Establish rules for independent investigations of mining disasters.
  • Improve safety technology in the mines, including better tracking and communications equipment, more reliable air supplies, and the installation of refuge chambers where trapped miners can safely await rescue.
  • Update standards to combat black lung disease and to reduce miners’ exposure to other deadly health risks, such as asbestos.
  • Strengthen rules to better inform miners of the health risks they face.

Stickler Opposes Bill

In a letter sent on Oct. 29, MSHA Administrator Richard Stickler challenged the bill, warning that it would “cause serious administrative problems for MSHA, weaken several critical safety standards, and in some instances, impose new safety requirements that are unrealistic or unlikely to make a substantive improvement in mine safety and health.”

He contended that the regulatory mandates contained in the S-MINER Act would, “in many cases, overturn ongoing regulatory processes created by the MINER Act” as it would “mandate 10 regulatory changes, impose at least 16 new mandates, create new unneeded offices within MSHA and fundamentally change the MSHA accident investigation process.”

In addition, Kraig Naasz, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, argued that the bill was “premature” and that it would “would impose additional requirements, including some that would overturn regulatory processes that are required by the MINER Act, before the industry has had an opportunity to implement the current law and its effectiveness is assessed.”

“This bill is far more likely to impede rather than improve our on-going efforts to enhance mine safety,” Naasz said.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Miner Workers of America, viewed the bill as an opportunity for MSHA to redeem itself.

“This legislation gives MSHA the tools it needs to be a true, tough watchdog for mine health and safety, improving on the MINER Act that was passed last year,” he said. “The real test for MSHA will come when this legislation becomes law. We will see then if the agency will actually enforce it.”

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