Democrats in Congress Propose Major Mine Safety Legislation

By | June 21, 2007

A ban on using so-called belt air ventilation is among numerous provisions in sweeping coal mine safety legislation introduced in the U.S. House this week.

Other provisions would speed the installation of better underground communication systems and airtight refuge chambers for trapped miners awaiting rescue. Broad safety legislation passed a year ago gave federal regulators until mid-2009 to require wireless communications systems and directed them to study refuge chambers.

“The provisions in this new legislative package build upon the solid groundwork provided by the MINER Act and could result in lifesaving advances for years to come,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who is sponsoring the legislation with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act became law June 15, 2006, after the fatal Sago Mine explosion and two other high-profile deadly accidents last year.

But the National Mining Association said the legislation is premature.

“Safety is not well served by imposing additional, overly burdensome requirements such as those proposed in the legislation introduced today until the many new safety requirements of the MINER Act have been fully implemented and their effectiveness properly assessed,” Chief Executive Kraig Naasz said. “Our efforts are currently and should rightly remain focused on full implementation of the MINER Act.”

The Washington, D.C.-based industry group noted that mine operators still need to put about 100,000 new emergency air packs into service, begin more extensive air pack training and continue adding mine rescue teams to meet the MINER Act’s requirements. The organization said 36 new rescue teams have been added or are being put together, which will push the national total past 200.

Miller, however, said it’s clear more must be done with new legislation. “Enactment of this legislation is essential if we are to ensure that our miners and their families no longer have to fear for their lives or those of their loved ones in producing the coal this nation needs.”

A ban on belt-air has been long sought by the United Mine Workers. The labor union considers the practice unsafe because it pumps fresh air underground through shafts used to move coal to the surface on belts that are prone to catch fire. Such a fire killed two miners Jan. 19, 2006, at Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co.’s Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

UMW President Cecil Roberts said the legislation answers most safety and health needs for miners.

“This legislation is especially important because it will help prevent dangerous situations from happening in the first place,” Roberts said in a statement. “For example, had the requirements on this legislation on seals, on belt flammability and on banning the use of ventilating mines with belt air been in place prior to 2006, the tragic deaths at Sago and Aracoma very likely could have been prevented.”

The new legislation also would beef up protection for miners who complain about unsafe conditions, reduce coal dust exposure limits and establish a national emergency call center. Other portions would increase penalties for mines that demonstrate patterns of violations and give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration subpoena power.

Dirk Fillpot, an MSHA spokesman, said the agency had not seen the legislation. He said MSHA is committed to improving mine safety and has met or beat Congress’ goals for implementing the MINER Act.

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