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U.S. senators query MSHA, industry officials on safety

Lawmakers in Washington pressed the Bush administration and the coal industry on Monday for answers on two mining accidents that have killed 14 West Virginia miners in the last three weeks.

“Mine safety is a moral imperative,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said during a Senate subcommittee hearing. “These miners ought not to be seen as expendable.”

In the wake of the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster and last week’s fire at the Aracoma Mine, Byrd and other senators asked tough questions of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials and coal industry leaders.

MSHA officials had few answers, and two top agency officials — acting administrator David Dye and coal chief Ray McKinney — drew criticism for leaving before the hearing ended.

Agency officials and coal industry representatives also did not offer their complete support for new mine rescue technologies being pushed in West Virginia by Gov. Joe Manchin.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., indicated that he would pursue legislation to increase the punishment for mine safety violations and ask federal auditors to update a 2003 review that found widespread problems in MSHA enforcement practices.

Specter also said he would consider a measure to prohibit coal company lawyers from sitting in on private miner interviews during accident investigations.

And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that lawmakers themselves have waited too long to beef up MSHA funding and require better safety technology in the mines.

“We have ignored this and ignored it and ignored it,” Harkin said.

Monday’s hearing before a budget subcommittee was the first in what is expected to be a series of congressional mine safety hearings this year.

Specter noted that while MSHA’s budget has increased by 42 percent over the past decade, that jump was not enough to keep pace with inflation. MSHA has eliminated about 183 positions over that period, Specter said.

Byrd said he is concerned that budget cuts and “cronyism” between MSHA and the mining industry played a role in the recent accidents.

Dye responded, “There is no cronyism between me and anyone in the industry.”

Dye has been acting MSHA chief since Dave D. Lauriski left the agency shortly after the November 2004 election. Lauriski was a 30-year coal executive, and President Bush has nominated another former industry official, Richard Stickler, to take his place.

Bruce Watzman, a safety expert with the National Mining Association, cautioned against making the renewed discussion into “an atmosphere where the parties feel the need to retreat to their respective corners of the ring and defend themselves.”

Byrd said Bush called him over the weekend on another matter and mentioned the fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

“He asked if he could do anything, and I said, ‘Yes. Stop cutting the coal mine health and safety enforcement budget,’” Byrd said. “We need more enforcement, not less.”

Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief advising Manchin on the Sago investigation, briefed lawmakers on proposals for West Virginia to require additional oxygen supplies for miners, and equip all miners with wireless communications devices and location trackers.

Dye was skeptical, saying the communications devices have “reliability issues.” Dye added that commercial cell phones and similar devices couldn’t be used in underground mines. Any new equipment would have to be carefully tested to ensure it will not spark fires or explosions, he said.

“You can’t use off-the-shelf technologies,” Dye said. “They’ll have to be virtually redesigned so they won’t do that.”

But McAteer said the devices are already being used in some U.S. mines and in many operations in other countries.

“These devices have proven to be reliable. They have proven to be effective in both this country and abroad,” McAteer said. “They are available to the industry, and it is my hope that the Senate and the administration would work to see that these devices are put into the mines immediately.”

In his prepared remarks, McAteer added, “It is very clear that the nation has not invested as much money and energy in the cause of coal mine safety as it has in the pursuit of coal production and profits.”

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said the advances Manchin is pushing have been supported by the UMW for years.

Roberts said the same is true for the dwindling number of mine rescue teams available at mines across the country.

“We’ve known this for many years, but we have not corrected this problem,” Roberts said.

Questioned about the mine rescue teams, Dye said his agency “is still working” on addressing the issue.

At the close of their testimony, while another panel of speakers prepared to address the committee, Dye and another MSHA official, Ray McKinney, apparently asked Specter’s permission to leave the hearing.

Specter asked that they remain, in case senators had further questions.

Dye said he and McKinney had “really urgent matters to attend to” including a mine fire in Colorado.

“There are 15,000 mines in the United States, and we’ve got some really pressing matters,” Dye said.

Specter replied, “We don’t think we’re imposing too much to keep you here another hour” but added that they were not under subpoena.

Dye and McKinney left, and two other MSHA officials, Bob Friend and Ed Claire, stayed until the end of the hearing.

MSHA did not respond to requests for information about the urgent mine fire in Colorado.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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