Congress OKs mine safety bill by wide margin
WASHINGTON — It will never be as safe as a desk job, but lawmakers hope coal mining becomes less risky due to changes they ordered Wednesday.
In a 381-37 vote, the House endorsed a bill that would require mine operators to put more oxygen supplies underground and move rescue teams closer to mines.
The bill, which previously won Senate backing, now goes to President Bush for his signature. In a statement Wednesday night, the president said the legislation would complement the administration’s efforts to enhance mine safety.
“America’s miners and their families can be confident that their government is committed to taking measures that will help prevent accidents and save lives,’’ Bush said.
But since Bush took office, the Mine Safety and Health Administration coal enforcement budget has actually decreased by nearly $500,000 a year, according to congressional budget documents. During that same period, the agency’s coal enforcement staff has dropped from 1,233 to 1,043, the documents show.
In February, Bush asked Congress to give the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about $288 million in the 2007 financial year, an increase of 3.6 percent from the previous year.
A string of fatal accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky prompted lawmakers to act. In all, 33 coal miners have been killed in the United States so far this year, including 19 in West Virginia — up from 22 deaths nationwide throughout 2005, according to MSHA.
“This has been a dark, mournful year for our nation’s coal miners,’’ said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
Separately, Senate leaders worked to force the confirmation of Richard Stickler to oversee mine safety. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., had blocked the nomination, saying he wanted more assurances that Stickler will be a strong leader.
The last time Congress passed significant mine safety legislation was in 1977.
“Technology has changed, communications equipment has changed, but our laws have not kept up,’’ Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said.
The measure would require miners to have at least a two-hour supply of oxygen with them while they work — an increase from a one-hour standard.
It also would require mine operators to leave additional air packs at various points in mines and to perform routine checks on the devices to ensure they work.
Oxygen supplies have been central to the debate over mine safety.
Three miners killed in an accident at an eastern Kentucky mine last month survived the initial explosion but died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Eleven miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning at West Virginia’s Sago Mine in January.
In both of those mines, nontraditional seals made of lightweight fiberglass blocks had been used to close off abandoned sections of the mines. The new legislation will require those seals to be strengthened.
Rescuers at the Kentucky accident reported that the seals did not withstand the blast. The accident at the Sago Mine is believed to have occurred in an abandoned section of the mine that was sealed.
Rescue teams must be within an hour’s distance of mines, rather than a two-hour standard, under the new legislation. And the bill states that new devices to track and communicate with trapped miners must be in place within three years.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said new technology should be mandated more quickly. Miller, the leading Democrat on the committee that oversees labor issues, was the only vocal opponent of the bill.
Miller wanted it amended to state that the communications and tracking devices must be in place within 15 months. He also wanted the bill to state that miners must have a two-day air supply.
Education and Workforce Committee Chairman Howard “Buck’’ McKeon, R-Calif., and other lawmakers said Miller’s efforts to change the bill would delay its passage by requiring the House and Senate versions of legislation to be reconciled.
West Virginia’s congressional delegation praised the bill’s passage but several lawmakers said more work needs to be done to protect the nation’s miners.
“This bill is not a cure-all, it’s not the perfect bill. But it is misleading and dangerous to suggest that any bill can be a cure-all. It is a step in the right direction, a step that must not be delayed,’’ Rahall said.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller called the House’s action “a historic moment for our miners, their families, and the mining industry as a whole.’’
“Our work on mine safety is not over. Congress must be aggressive in making sure this new law is properly implemented and strongly enforced. We simply must do everything in our power to make sure that no more Sagos, Aracomas and Darbys become household words,’’ Rockefeller said.
Byrd said the bill is a significant step in improving mine safety.
“At long last, this Congress is taking steps to protect the lives of our coal miners,’’ Byrd said. “In West Virginia this year, 19 miners have been killed on the job. We cannot allow these men to die in vain. ... Clearly, there is more to accomplish, but the MINER Act is a major step forward.’’
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she hopes the measure “is only the beginning of a renewed dialogue to ensure we’re doing everything we can to keep miners safe.’’
Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., said this year’s accidents show the need for new approaches to mine safety.
“While not perfect, this is the first best effort to quickly bring significant enhancements to safety in our nation’s coal mines,’’ Mollohan said.
The bill had the support of both the United Mine Workers of America and the industry-backed National Mining Association.