House Democrats Pass Mine Safety Bill Despite Bush Veto Threat

By | January 18, 2008

Defying White House veto threats, the Democratic-controlled House this week passed sweeping mine safety legislation aimed at preventing future underground disasters like the one that took nine lives last year at Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Republican and mining industry officials complained that Congress and President Bush already had passed mine safety legislation in 2006 after 12 West Virginia miners were killed in the Sago mine disaster. New legislation, they say, would imperil the safety changes already under way.

“We’re stepping on something we haven’t even implemented yet,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

Democrats accused the Bush administration of being lax on getting the required changes in the 2006 law in place.

“Congress has been forced to act to improve mine safety because of the Bush administration’s total failure to work aggressively to keep miners safe on the job,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Representatives voted 214-199 to pass the Supplementary Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, also called S-MINER.

The legislation would add safeguards to “retreat” mining, the type of mining that was being done at central Utah’s Crandall Canyon, where nine people died in August 2007. The bill would improve emergency response to mine sites and require coal mines to install advance tracking technology, Democrats said.

Mine operators would be required to use new coal-dust monitors to reduce miners’ exposure to coal dust, which causes black-lung disease.

The bill also would give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration subpoena authority; increase penalties for safety violations; place it completely in control of a rescue site, including communication with mining families; and create an ombudsman’s office to handle miners’ safety complaints. The bill also would allow for independent investigations when more than one miner is killed in an accident.

U.S. coal mines saw 33 deaths in 2007, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That compares to 47 miners who were killed in 2006, 23 killed in 2005 and 28 killed in 2004.

But mine safety was brought back into the national spotlight last year because of the deaths at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah, where six miners died in a roof collapse in August. Three rescuers died in a failed attempt to retrieve their bodies from the mine.

The cause of the disaster is still under investigation.

“It would be premature to legislate on many of these issues until the Crandall Canyon investigation is complete,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

But Democrats say the S-MINER bill, which was introduced before the Crandall Canyon accident, can’t wait. “We need to have a country and a government that values the lives of the miners as much as they value what they bring out of the ground,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.

The margin of victory in the House would not be enough to override the veto threatened Tuesday by the Bush administration.

The White House said S-MINER “would place in jeopardy meaningful achievements and efforts currently under way” because of the 2006 MINER bill, which it praised as “the most significant mine safety legislation in nearly 30 years.”

The National Mining Association agreed, with its president Kraig R. Naasz saying the Democratic bill “will divert industry and regulatory resources” from the changes the MINER Act requires.

Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said the 2006 bill was primarily focused on what happens after an accident. “There is next to nothing in that legislation that does anything to address keeping incidents from happening in the first place,” he said. “The S-MINER Act has such language, and the UMWA believes that its passage and implementation will save lives.”

A similar bill to the House measure is pending in the Senate.

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On the Net:

The bill number is H.R. 2768.

For bill text: http://thomas.loc.gov

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