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Toughest rules are missing from federal mine safety bill

A mine safety bill passed by the U.S. Senate is missing some of the toughest provisions proposed by West Virginia’s congressional delegation after the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire.

Just before Memorial Day, one day after Senate approval, the legislation stalled in the House.

California Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on a workplace safety committee, wanted to strengthen the bill. Critics complained that Miller was grandstanding. His amendments would doom the bill, they said.

But Miller’s three amendments do not include the toughest language that was removed from the West Virginia bill to help win unanimous approval in the Senate on May 24.

Among the provisions that did not make it into the compromise Senate bill are:

s A ban on the use of conveyor-belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes for underground mines, a controversial practice critics say helps fuel fires.

s Minimum penalties of $10,000 for safety violations that are found to result from negligence or reckless disregard of rules by mine operators.

s A requirement that all coal mines — including very small ones — maintain their own, on-site mine rescue squads.

s A tightening of the concentrations of deadly coal dust allowed in underground mines.

If approved, the Senate bill could be the most significant mine safety legislation to pass Congress in nearly 30 years.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., worked out the compromise measure with Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., also played major roles in the negotiations.

In a statement the day the Senate approved it, Byrd said that the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response, or MINER, Act, “is the best hope to begin fixing obvious problems that, if left unaddressed would continue to cost lives.”

Rockefeller said the bill “will make mining not free of danger, but less dangerous.”

Coal industry lobbyists support the Senate measure. So does the United Mine Workers union. Various coalfield congressional representatives also have signed on.

The National Mining Association said the broad support for the bill “speaks to its integrity as a meaningful step in improving coal mining safety.”

But several families of Sago disaster victims and some mine safety experts independent of the UMW say it is far too weak. They support Miller’s efforts to strengthen it.

Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety lawyer in Kentucky, said Miller’s amendments were “common-sense measures that should be part of any legislation approved by the U.S. Congress.”

In a letter released by Miller’s office, a lawyer for three of the Sago families announced his clients’ support for the amendments.

“Given what occurred at Sago and in other coal mines since that time, where numerous men have lost their lives due to unsafe mining conditions, we do not understand why any lawmaker who cares about the health and safety of miners would not want these necessary safety measures included in our law,” wrote Morgantown lawyer Paul Cranston, who represents the families of Sago miners Terry Helms, Fred Ware Jr. and Jim Bennett.

In his amendments, Miller wants to require coal companies to provide enough additional air supplies underground to sustain miners for at least two days. The Senate bill requires each miner to have at least two hours of emergency air. Operators must also store additional breathing devices every 30 minutes along escape routes. But the bill simply states that the total oxygen supply must last “a sustained period of time.”

Miller also wants to require companies to install wireless communications equipment within 15 months. The Senate bill gives the industry three years to comply.

Miller’s third amendment would mandate additional testing by the government of the air packs that companies provide to miners for emergency escapes.

Freda Sorah and Wanda Blevins, who lost their husbands in the September 2001 explosion at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Alabama, issued a statement in support of Miller’s amendments.

“New laws can help, but only if they do something about the real problems,” Sorah and Blevins said. “These are very important key issues that must be written into law.”

The Senate bill makes some major improvements in mine safety laws.

For example, it would require the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, within 18 months, to write tougher regulations for the strength of seals used on abandoned areas of underground mines. Problems with seals and the regulation of them became an issue after the Sago disaster and the deaths of five miners at the Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., last month.

The Senate bill would require all mine operators to submit detailed accident-response plans. The plans, to be reviewed every six months by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, must outline how operators would provide for safe escapes and protection for any miners trapped underground.

While continuing to allow small operators to hire contractor mine-rescue teams, the Senate bill would mandate that contract teams train periodically at each mine they cover.

But in some areas, the Senate bill requires additional study, rather than quick action.

For example, it would mandate a study of using conveyor-belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes. It also requires a study of ways to make conveyor-belt materials flame retardant. Both belt issues already have been the subjects of extensive government studies.

At the same time the Miller is butting heads over amendments to the Senate bill, he is sponsoring even stronger legislation in conjunction with supporters of that Senate bill.

Among other things, that legislation would require family involvement in accident investigations and force mine operators to install rescue chambers in underground mines. It also would expedite the process for MSHA to issue “pattern of violation” citations that would carry fines of up to $1 million.

In the House, Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va., are co-sponsoring that legislation. Kennedy and Rockefeller are sponsoring the companion bill in the Senate.

UMW President Cecil Roberts was disappointed when Miller’s effort blocked House consideration last week of the Senate bill. But a union spokesman said later the Senate bill should not be the end of mine safety reform efforts in Congress.

“The Enzi-Kennedy bill gives miners a better chance of surviving incidents like Sago, Aracoma and Darby by increasing readily available oxygen supplies in the mines and installing lifelines, and that’s very important,” said UMW spokesman Phil Smith. “But we must also be working to prevent these disasters from happening in the first place.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continuing coverage of mine safety issues is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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