Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mine Safety Bill 'Paused For Improvements' In the House

Well, things are getting curiouser and curiouser in the United States Congress. Last week the Senate unanimously passed a mine safety bill. Unanimous? Mine Safety legislation? Who would have thought that would ever be possible?

And now Republicans in the House, who have spent the past several months resisting mine safety hearings and not introducing legislation, apparently hoping this whole mine safety kerfuffle would just fade away, are now falling all over each other demanding that that a bill be passed now, NOW rather than hold it up even a few days for a few "extreme" improvements that an "irresponsible" Democratic Congressman wants to make. And the United Mineworkers are joining in the chorus to get the bill passed as quickly as possible and on the President's desk.

But Congressman George Miller (D-CA), apparently not wanting to waste a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pass really good mine safety legislation, has called for three major improvements in the Senate bill. In a letter to Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), Miller called for the House to amend the Senate bill to:
  • mandate no less than a two-day supply of oxygen for trapped miners; (The Senate bill doesn’t provide a minimum number of hours or days of air supply that must be provided in these circumstances)

  • mandate, within 15 months, communications and tracking devices to find and communicate with trapped miners;(The Senate bill delays implementation of the devices for three years, despite the fact that countries around the world already provide their miners with devices) and

  • require the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to regularly inspect miners’ individual oxygen devices, known as self-contained self-rescuers.(The Senate bill would not require MSHA to conduct regular field tests to ensure they are reliable.)
Miller has been doggedly pursuing the mine safety issue since the Sago disaster. Last January, he issued a report accusing the Bush administration of putting "mine workers’ lives at greater risk by putting the of mining company executives ahead of the enforcement of critical workplace health and safety rules." In February, Miller put together a "forum" of mine safety experts and families of mining disasters -- when Republicans were still refusing to even hold a hearing. When Committee Chairman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) was finally embarrassed into holding a hearing in early March, he shut it down early after only 90 minutes, despite Miller's angry objections.

Miller has taken a quite a bit of flack over the past few days for his effort to improve the Senate bill. McKeon, who has yet introduced any mine safety legislation, is suddenly in a major rush, claiming that Miller
would be irresponsible to halt solid, widely-supported legislation that is one step away from arriving on President Bush's desk as Congress moves to recess for the Memorial Day holiday.
Republican West Virginia Congresswoman Shelly Moore Caputo called Miller's amendments "totally unreasonable," and even West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, upset that the bill was being stalled, stated that "Rep. Miller's opposition to this carefully created, bipartisan legislation is nothing short of an American tragedy." The United Mineworkers, saying that they "appreciate Congressman Miller and all he has done and continues to do on behalf of America’s coal miners" and admitting that the Senate bill did not include everything they wanted, still urged Miller to drop his objections to move the House bill along as quickly as possible.

And to top it all off, Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA), who plans to add a drug testing requirement to the House bill responded that
Miller has continuously criticized Republicans for "delaying" mine safety legislation, in spite of Enzi and Norwood's diligent oversight work through multiple House and Senate hearings held since the Sago tragedy. Now that bipartisan legislation is ready for passage into law, Miller is opposing a fast-track approach while insisting on provisions that are unworkable, extreme, and not supported by mine operators or union leaders.
But Miller was standing his ground, releasing a letter from the families of three of the miners killed in the Sago disaster and former state and federal mine safety official Tony Oppegard supporting Miller's improvements. According to Oppegard, "It would be better to wait 10 days for the right bill than to act now on an incomplete one."

Miller's arguments received further support today with the release of a report by a West Virginia Mine Safety Technology Task Force that called for underground refuge chambers that can supply 48 hours of breathable air for trapped miners and that mine companies finalize plans, within 15 months, to install communications and tracking devices for finding and communicating with trapped miners.

According to Miller:
The task force included representatives from the coal mining industry and from the United Mine Workers union, so it has tremendous credibility. It shows that industry itself agrees that my proposals on breathable air and communications and tracking equipment are reasonable, practical, and achievable. The task force recommendations should be incorporated as minimum requirements for federal legislation.


The task force came up with the 48-hour minimum after reviewing accidents that occurred between 1940 and 1980 in which miners were trapped and finding that, in most of those cases, miners remained trapped for 20 to 30 hours. (At Sago, only one of the 12 miners who died was killed in the initial explosion. The others died during a 40 hour wait for rescue.)
The West Virginia Mine Safety Technology Task Force was created by West Virginia state law earlier this year and was made up of six representatives – three from labor and three from the industry.

Miller also announced that his third amendment, requiring MSHA to regularly inspect miners' self-contained self-rescuers, received support from former MSHA head J. Davitt McAteer, who is leading the investigation into the cause of the Sago mine disaster:
"We need to ask miners to go in, on a random basis, to don the devices and walk out with them so we get a real useful sampling of how they do work,” McAteer told the Associated Press. Miller proposed this amendment in light of reports – including one from the sole survivor of the Sago tragedy – that self-rescuers had failed in emergencies.
“It’s not whether they work in the lab, it’s whether they work in the mine, where they’re needed,” McAteer said.

Stay tuned. More to come.