Tough new mine safety legislation is introduced

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Mine operators must evacuate workers in lightning storms unless they can assure workers' safety, and they could face temporary shutdowns of their mines for unpaid civil penalties under sweeping new federal mine legislation introduced in Congress yesterday.

Building on last year's Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response -- or MINER -- Act, the bills cover a wide range of health and safety initiatives.

Among other things, the legislation calls for refuge chambers within 1,000 feet of a mine's working face, stricter standards for allowable coal dust and asbestos exposure, a ban on the use of belt airways for ventilation and protection for whistleblowers who report unsafe conditions.

The bills also would require more underground gas and smoke monitoring systems and prompt reporting of near-miss accidents, and federal mine safety officials would have subpoena power similar to other federal agencies for accident investigations.

"The MINER Act was an important first step towards fixing years of backsliding and complacency when it comes to the health and safety of miners," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in a statement. "While important progress has been made, we now have clear evidence that more can and must be done."

Mr. Miller announced the bills with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, was a co-sponsor.

The National Mining Association, which represents coal industry interests, said the legislation will be a distraction for mine operators still trying to comply with provisions of the MINER Act, passed last June.

"Our industry supported the MINER Act and we continue to work toward its implementation," said NMA spokesman Luke Popovich. "For that reason, safety is not well served by imposing additional burdensome requirements such as those contained in this bill until we've fully implemented the existing law and have been able to assess its effectiveness."

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, meanwhile, said the legislation "answers most if not all of the safety and health needs of miners."

Had provisions such as stronger seals, less flammable belts and a ban on belt air for ventilation been in place 18 months ago, "the tragic deaths at Sago and Aracoma very likely could have been prevented," he said.

While hailing the proposed initiatives, Mr. Roberts cautioned that they will help only if the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration "embraces that new authority and actually uses it. Irresponsible coal operators need to know that MSHA is serious about enforcing all the laws on the books and also enforcing the penalties for noncompliance."

Dirk Fillpot, spokesman for MSHA, said: "We haven't had an opportunity yet to review the legislation, but MSHA is committed to doing what it can to improve safety for miners, and we have met or beat congressional goals in implementing the MINER Act."

Last week, MSHA notified eight mine operators they could be cited as pattern violators and that could result in miners being pulled from the mines until safety violations are corrected. The agency has never before taken that action.

In the past year, the agency also has instituted a number of safety standards strengthening mine seals, improving training, improving underground communications and setting steeply higher fines for flagrant safety violations.

The proposal to evacuate mines during lightning storms comes one month after MSHA determined that lightning caused a methane explosion at West Virginia's Sago mine on Jan. 2, 2006, that resulted in the deaths of 12 miners.

Sago marked the beginning of a disastrous year for miners. Later that month, two miners died in a fire at the Aracoma Alma mine in West Virginia, and in May 2006, five more died at the Kentucky Darby mine.

In all, 47 coal miners and 25 workers at non-coal producing metal/non-metal mines perished in 2006. Seven coal miners and 12 other miners have died so far this year.

The new legislation would require MSHA to set similar safety rules for metal/non-metal mines as apply to coal mines.


Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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