Mine Safety

February 27, 2007
Blog
Whereas many derided the previous Congress as the "Do-nothing Congress," every day now one can see the wheels turning in innumerable committees and subcommittees to protect and expand opportunity for working Americans. An example of that can be found in a new report out on mine safety from the Education and Labor Committee -- but first some background.

Though the mine tragedies of recent years received a great deal of appropriate media attention, the root causes and attempts to address them received far less attention. In April of 2006, now-Chairman George Miller wrote the following:

Mine Disasters Demand Action From Congress

Re. George Miller, Huffington Post - April 4, 2004

Three months ago today -- in the early morning hours of January 4, 2006 -- families in Upshur County, West Virginia, learned the terrible news that 12 of the 13 miners trapped by the explosion at the Sago Mine there had died. Since then, a string of accidents at U.S. coal mines have claimed another nine miners.

That's 21 coal miners killed so far in 2006, compared with 22 in all of 2005. If that's not a problem that screams out for urgent action, I don't know what is.

Yet three months after Sago, the House of Representatives has failed to act to improve mine safety. The West Virginia congressional delegation -- on a bipartisan basis -- has introduced legislation to address the problem. But no hearings have been scheduled on that legislation, let alone a committee meeting to consider the bill and send it to the floor for a vote of the full House.

At long last, the MINER Act passed in June, but in many ways it was a watered down version of the necessary reforms:

Many of the MINER Act's provisions address vulnerabilities exposed by Sago and other accidents. The provisions include:

  • Requiring every miner to carry enough oxygen to last for at least two hours and requiring mines to store oxygen along escape routes. Currently, miners carry air packs that provide about an hour's worth of oxygen.
  • Setting minimum fines for some safety violations and raising the maximum for others. The maximum civil penalty for flagrant safety violations would rise from $60,000 to $220,000.
  • Requiring mining companies to have wireless two-way communication systems and equip each miner with an electronic tracking device within three years.
  • Requiring mining companies to ensure that two rescue teams are located within one hour of each mine.

Democratic Rep. George Miller of California voted against the measure. He argued that it doesn't go far enough and co-authored a more stringent bill.

Miller said mining companies should be required to stock their mines with at least 48 hours worth of oxygen, two-way communication and tracking systems within 15 months, and submit to random inspections of miners' emergency air packs.

"We can and must do better," Miller said during the debate.

Today, Chairman Miller begins to follow through on that commitment, releasing the first in a series of interim staff reports(pdf) on the implementation of the MINER Act of 2006. The report goes in-depth into major outstanding issues and problems, including:

  • Emergency evacuation problems still remain
  • Underground refuges are still not being installed
  • Underground refuges are still not being installed
  • Disaster communication with miner families and the public needs attention
  • Key hazards revealed by the 2006 tragedies remain unaddressed
  • Tougher penalties need to be regularly assessed
  • Special mission support needs careful attention

The report concludes:

Conclusions

The promise of the MINER Act of 2006 has not been fully realized because MSHA and the mining industry are failing to self-initiate important safety improvements. They need to do better, and quickly move on to address the many other critical safety and health risks to miners that require prompt attention before new disasters occur.

Mine industry financial profits are currently more than adequate to make the required investments in worker safety. The National Mining Association's Grayson Commission has called upon the industry to act on additional safety measures, and stated that companies which do not "should not be permitted to operate underground coal mines."

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is not required to wait for technology that does everything perfectly and at minimal cost before it requires mine operators to act. MSHA has delayed action on critical risks to miners.

Said Chairman Miller upon release of the report:

"The MINER Act is an important step towards improving mine safety, and it is critical that it be implemented quickly and effectively. This report is just part of the oversight that the committee will conduct this year to make sure that the Labor Department is doing everything it can to ensure that all miners return home safely to their families at the end of their shifts."

Business is being done differently.