West Virginia’s congressional delegation on Wednesday introduced bills to force federal regulators to toughen fines, write new rules and better enforce existing standards to protect the nation’s 1,400 coal mines.
The state’s two senators and three House members introduced identical bills to require action by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
“If we must hold the hand of the Labor Department and lead it like a stubborn and obstinate child to promulgate rules to protect the health and safety of miners, then that is what we will do,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised to push for passage of the legislation.
“I will do anything that I can to make sure these mines are safer,” said Reid, whose father was seriously injured in a gold mine blasting accident when Reid was less than a week old.
MSHA officials did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation.
Byrd and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced the Senate version of the bill at about 10 a.m., just hours before three more serious accidents left two more West Virginia coal miners dead.
Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced the House version of the bill.
In Charleston, West Virginia lawmakers had already passed Gov. Joe Manchin’s mine rescue legislation last week.
The deaths of 14 miners in two accidents — including 12 in the Sago Mine disaster, the worst mining accident in West Virginia in nearly 40 years — had pushed mine safety to the top of the political agenda. Two more people were killed in separate accidents at coal mines in Boone County on Wednesday.
“We don’t pretend to be doing a complete fix of mine safety,” Rockefeller said. “But our action is a first strong step down a road that Congress should have started down a long time ago.”
The legislation would require MSHA to, within 90 days, write new regulations to:
s Create a “rapid emergency response” system for mine accidents, and require coal operators to “expeditiously provide notification” of any accidents where rescue work is necessary.
s Force all coal mines to maintain their own, on-site mine rescue teams, ending the common practice — allowed by current MSHA rules — of contracting rescue teams from as far as two hours away.
s Mandate that all coal miners be given portable communications equipment and tracking devices.
s Require coal companies to provide additional emergency air supplies “sufficient to maintain [miners] for a sustained period of time.”
Byrd and Rockefeller noted that these were all things that MSHA could do on its own. In some cases, they noted, the provisions matched existing rulemaking proposals that the Bush administration threw out after taking office.
“They can do it without a single change in any law at all,” Rockefeller said. “It’s just a matter of the Secretary of Labor moving on these things.”
Byrd added, “For five years, the Secretary of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration have worked against the interests of coal miners.”
The legislation would also reverse a Bush administration rule that skirted a 1969 federal law banning the use of conveyor belt tunnels to funnel fresh air into underground coal mines.
Byrd said that the practice — believed by safety experts to help spread fires and toxic smoke from belt fires — “likely played a part” in the Jan. 19 fire that killed two workers at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.
The legislation would also establish a minimum fine of $10,000 for mine safety violations where the operator “displays negligent or reckless disregard” for federal rules.
It would also create a new “office of science and technology transfer” within MSHA. This office would conduct research and development “to apply advancing sciences and technologies to underground coal mine and coal miner health and safety.”
MSHA would be required to periodically review underground coal mine health and safety standards, and revise them based on new science or technology.
Also, the legislation would create within the labor department Office of Inspector General a position of “Miner Ombudsman.”
This position would look into safety complaints received from miners through a new toll-free number and Internet site.
“Shamefully, the coalfields of our nation are littered with examples of how tragedy will always arise when the safety of miners is neglected,” Rahall said. “I aim to ensure that the legacy of the Sago and Alma miners will be the certainty that those laws are not left to idle on the shelf, but are, instead, enforced to the fullest extend.
“We owe to them, their brothers and sisters still in the mines, and those yet to don a miner’s cap, nothing less.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.