Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Senate Passes Mine Safety Legislation

What does it take for the US Senate to come together to unanimously pass legislation that will protect workers? Nothing less than the death of 31 coal miners over the past four and a half months.
Four days after an eastern Kentucky coal mine explosion killed five miners, the Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed bipartisan mine safety legislation.

The House could pass the Senate version without changes or incorporate the measure into its own bill.

The Senate bill gives the federal government the power to:
  • close mines that violate safety orders
  • boost penalties to a maximum of $250,000
  • and require additional oxygen supplies for miners underground.
"This has been a tough few years in coal country, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and in Kentucky - as everyone knows we just lost five miners last weekend," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who helped push the bill through and is one of its sponsors.
That would be the same Mitch McConnell who is married to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, the person ultimately responsible (in addition to her boss, the President) for the decline in our workplace safety agencies over the past five years. Even the Bush administration supported the bill. McConnell's still one beer short of a sixpack, however. While announcing his support for the bill, McConnell also urged the Senate to confirm the manefestly unqualified Richard Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Stickler's nomination is still being held up by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006 (S 2803) was introduced last week by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Mike Enzi, (R-Wy). The bill now moves on to the House of Representatives where Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) who heads the committee responsible for mine safety, announced that he would introduce a similar bill, but with "a handful of additional provisions."

And what might those "additional provisions" be? Well, in addition to three items that give MSHA subpoena power and call for additional research, Norwood's bill calls for the drug testing of every miner within 90 days.

So, with all the concern about lack of oxygen, communication problems, explosive methane and coal dust, serious MSHA violations, and ridiculously low fines that are often not paid, Charlie Norwood is concerned about drug testing?

Congressman George Miller (D-CA) hits the nail on the head.
Let me say that the inclusion of mandatory drug and alcohol testing in Chairman Norwood's bill implies that he believes that the miners themselves were responsible for these recent mining tragedies. This is an insult to the families of miners killed in accidents at Sago, Jim Walters, Aracoma Alma, Darby, and other coal mines.

"This is the wrong focus at the wrong time. It is reprehensible that Chairman Norwood's bill would mandate drug and alcohol testing for miners within 90 days but would not mandate life-saving individual communications devices for miners for another three years, if at all."
One more note to the Senate. You all did a good job today. But before you head off to the bar to pat yourselves on the back, remember one thing. As I've said before, if the 12 miners killed on the job at Sago that day in January were the only American workers to die that day, it would have been a good day in the American workplace. Every day in this country, more than 15 workers are crushed in trench collapses, shot in convenience stores, mangled in machinery, killed in vehicle accidents, or fall to their deaths from scaffolds and cell towers. And the problem is getting worse. The number of workplace fatalities has risen in each of the past two years and the national workplace fatality rate rose in 2004 for the first time since 1994.

So now that you've done something good for America's coal miners, maybe you can come back to work tomorrow and start thinking about doing something for the rest of the nation's working people.