IN July, Sen. Robert C. Byrd complained that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration didn’t act fast enough to hire inspectors to enforce coal mine safety, even after Congress gave the agency another $25.6 million to increase its ranks.
Since then, MSHA has agreed to a timetable to put more examiners on the job. Forty-two will be added by the end of the year. Of those, 21 are among 165 funded by Congress’ supplemental bill. MSHA will also add five support staff and eight Mine Health and Safety Academy instructors. All 165 new inspectors are scheduled to be in place by Sept. 30, 2007.
The Sago mine disaster on Jan. 2, followed by a rash of other West Virginia mine deaths this year, focused national attention on mine safety. There have been 38 coal mine deaths across America so far this year, including 20 in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, the Senate has rejected for the second time President Bush’s nominee Richard Stickler to run MSHA. Originally from Marion County, Stickler worked for BethEnergy Mines of Pennsylvania for 30 years, worked briefly for Massey and then headed Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety from 1997 to 2003, when he retired. His mines had accident rates twice the national average.
At a recent meeting of editorial writers in Pittsburgh, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., shook his head at the nomination. “I’m very disappointed,” Specter said. “They put up a guy from Pennsylvania, who is very hard to oppose, but he wasn’t the right guy for the job.”
In a solemn ceremony with Sago mine families this summer, Bush signed into law the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act written by Sens. Byrd and Rockefeller.
Among many improvements the new law requires better emergency response plans underground, wireless communication systems, doubled supplies of breathable air, underground shelters and increased fines for violators.
The law is a step in the right direction. But laws don’t help much if they’re not seriously enforced. For example, underground shelters that save miners in other countries were long authorized by U.S. law, but never mandated. For several years before the Sago disaster, the White House sought budget reductions and cut more than 200 MSHA inspectors.
So many deaths caught the nation’s attention. To prevent more deaths after the spotlight fades, MSHA needs a director serious about enforcing these important laws.