Since 1969, federal inspectors have been required to inspect every underground coal mine in the nation "in its entirety" at least four times each year.
Last week, coal industry lobbyists resumed a longstanding effort to eliminate — or at least greatly weaken — that requirement.
The National Mining Association wants less frequent inspections for mines with good safety records.
In return, the group proposes that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration step up inspections of mines with safety problems, according to testimony before separate Senate and House hearings last week.
"MSHA must base resource allocation decisions on documented need, rather than unexamined conformity with the directives contained in the Mine Act," Michael Peelish, a Foundation Coal Corp. vice president, told lawmakers.
So far this year, 21 U.S. coal miners have died on the job. Twenty-two died in the mines in all of 2005.
In West Virginia, the death of 16 miners in 2006 makes it the state's deadliest year since 1995.
After 12 workers were killed in the Sago Mine disaster in early January, national and state lawmakers began hearings and investigations. West Virginia's congressional delegation called for major changes at MSHA, new safety and rescue rules, and tougher enforcement.
Gov. Joe Manchin has already pushed through new state-level mine rescue requirements.
In Washington, MSHA has promised several improvements. But as of Friday, the agency had not published an emergency rule — announced Feb. 7 — to require additional oxygen.
Mining industry officials have said they support increased safety efforts, but they question whether new rescue devices now mandated in West Virginia will really work.
And now, industry lobbyists have reopened their efforts to rework MSHA and the agency's more than 36-year-old inspection requirements.
On Friday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said he would oppose those efforts.
"I hope that no one would try to take advantage of the mining tragedies in our state to make changes to the federal Mine Act that would be detrimental to the safety of our nation's miners," Byrd said.
A decade ago, industry lobbyists and conservative activists failed in a campaign to eliminate MSHA altogether.
Backed by the Heritage Foundation, then-Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., in June 1995 introduced a bill to move mine safety enforcement to a scaled-down version of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
That legislation did not pass. But today, numerous co-sponsors of the Ballenger bill are in powerful positions in the House of Representatives.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., is now chairman of the House subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is speaker of the House. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, is the GOP majority leader. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., is chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.
And the idea of cutting back MSHA's inspection requirements has never died.
During a July 1998 hearing, John Correll, director of safety for Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., testified on behalf of the National Mining Association.
"It's always been my feeling that the Mine Act does not define the term 'inspection,' and I believe that it could be viewed as something other than walking every entryway, every crosscut, every belt," Correll said.
"We have miles and miles of conveyor belting at a large, open-pit mine such as ours, and that consumes a great deal of time," Correll said.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/