Mine Safety Hearing

March 28, 2007
From the Education and Labor Committee:

MSHA Needs to be Held Accountable to Enforce Mine Safety Laws, Witnesses Tell the Education and Labor Committee

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Promises made to coal miners and their families to improve mine safety have not yet been met, witnesses told the House Education and Labor Committee today.

Forty-seven coal miners died in mining accidents in the U.S. in 2006, the largest number of fatalities since 1995. In response to those tragedies, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act. The mining industry promised to make worker safety a top priority.

However, witnesses said implementation of important provisions of the MINER Act by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has proceeded too slowly, putting miners' lives at unnecessarily high risk.

"Under the Bush administration, MSHA has rolled back safety and health rules, and has shifted its focus away from enforcing the law and toward so-called 'voluntary compliance assistance,'" said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "When MSHA fails to fulfill its obligations, fails to establish and revise rules for safer mining in a timely way, fails to ensure that each mine operator has a plan that fully implements these rules, or fails to enforce these rules with trained inspectors and meaningful sanctions, then miners' lives are put at unacceptable risk."

"I am sorry to report that MSHA's effort over the past year would do little to change matters today if a mine were to experience an explosion like the one at Sago, or a fire like the one at Alma; indeed the underground miners would likely fair no better than those who perished over one year ago," said Cecil E. Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America. "[T]he last year has seen virtually no progress in either expanding the number or improving the proximity of qualified mine rescue teams."

Deborah Hamner, whose husband died in the Sago mine disaster, said that agencies responsible for oversight of mine safety should do their jobs: "Congress must ensure funding for mine inspectors and mine inspections. MSHA must quit reducing fines and must do a better job of collecting fines. MSHA must have the ability to shut down mines not in compliance."

Chuck Knisell, a coal miner from Pennsylvania, said, "We still don't have reliable communications in the mines in the event of a disaster. Technology for tracking miners underground has been around for a long time and is used in other countries, but MSHA has never required it in the United States. Miners shouldn't have to wait for more of us to be killed or injured for our government to demand of companies that they do whatever it takes to keep us safe."

Charles Scott Howard, a miner from Kentucky, testified that miners still face dangers with little accountability from regulators: "Safety is a huge responsibility. The industry must be held responsible for they have all the power and authority to see that safety comes first. Black Lung is still a big problem, compensation is still a big problem and the inspectors and government that regulates mining is a big problem. The problem is the coal industry has put forth too much money to hide the truth."

Melissa Lee, wife of a miner who died in the Darby explosion, highlighted the stakes for all families involved in coal mining disasters: "The explosion wrecked many, many lives. It has caused too many of us to have to remap our lives. I moved away, closed my new business, relocated my children to different schools they do not like. I have had to make changes in things I should have never had to change."

Chairman Miller announced that the committee plans on holding additional oversight hearings on MSHA and the mining industry.