Thursday, June 08, 2006

Sweeping Mine Safety Legislation Passed By The House

The US House of Representatives, by a vote of 381-71, passed a groundbreaking mine safety bill yesterday (HR 5432). It was the same legislation passed last month by the Senate, so it will now move to the President’s desk for signature. The New York Times called it “the most sweeping overhaul of mine safety regulations since the federal mine safety agency was created nearly three decades ago.” The last major revision of the Mine Safety and Health Act was in 1977.

As indicated last week, although the original Senate bill (S 2803), sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy and Mike Enzi, passed the Senate unanimously, its passage through the House was more problematic, however. Democratic Congressman George Miller pressed for four amendments that would have strengthened the bill, but the original bill was strongly supported by Senate Democrats, the United Mineworkers Union, the AFL-CIO and the National Mining Association. The bill
requires mine operators to provide a second hour’s worth of air for mines along escape routes (they now carry one hour’s worth). They will also have to provide communication and tracking devices for miners within three year. The maximum civil penalty for violations of mine-safety regulations will rise to $220,000, from $60,000.
The bill also requires mine operators to report any life-threatening accident with 15 minutes, improve rescue teams, and directs MSHA to raise the standards for seals for abandoned sections of mines, like those that blew up at Sago and Darby.

Miller had wanted to add amendments that would have required mine operators to provide communication equipment within 15 months, instead of 3 years which the bill allows, a two-day supply of oxygen, and federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections of miners’ individual oxygen devices. Miller stated that
he would continue to seek those and other improvements in mine safety. He said he would also continue to hold the Bush administration accountable when it fails to do everything in its power to keep miners safe.
Eleven of the Sago miners and 3 of the five miner who died in the recent explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine suffocated to death due to lack of oxygen.

Thirty-two Democrats joined Miller in opposing the bill. Basically, what we saw in the dispute between Miller and the bill’s supporters was the traditional conflict between the “bird in the hand worth two in the bush” crowd versus the “This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pass good legislation, so let’s get as much as we can” crowd. Go for broke and risk getting nothing, or compromise and get most of what you want. What we’ve seeing here is the sometimes ugly reality of how the Congressional sausage is made.

Both sides, of course, have legitimate arguments, but given that the Republicans control Congress and have been extraordinarily slow to move on the growing crisis in the mining industry, it’s good to see such significant legislation pass both houses of Congress with such large majorities. The tragic part, of course, is that it’s taken the deaths of 33 miners this year to get Congress to act on reforms that are long overdue.

What Democrats and labor agree on, however, is that the fight for improved mine safety is not over; this law should only be the beginning. West Virginia’s Senators Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller are attempting to add $35.6 million to the budget to enhance mine safety efforts. Mineworkers president Cecil Roberts called on MSHA to “to quickly promulgate the regulations it requires, and then vigorously enforce them.” The AFL-CIO, while urging quick passage of the Senate bill, also argued in a letter to the House members, that
passage of the Senate bill should only be a first step, and much more needs to be done to offer better protection for miners and their families. For example, Rep. George Miller has proposed requiring at least 48 hours of emergency air for miners trapped underground, wireless communication and electronic tracking systems within 15 months, and government testing of miners' individual oxygen supplies. Frankly, we do not understand why anybody would oppose such common sense measures.
Meanwhile, the United Mineworkers union sued the federal government today to ensure that mine rescue devices were working properly and that workers are trained in how to use them:

The suit by the United Mine Workers of America comes a day after Congress passed sweeping legislation overhauling mine safety rules. The union backed the legislation but said its lawsuit deals with separate concerns.


The union's lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington, also seeks to force the mine agency to do more to train miners to use the air packs. Roberts said training is typically done in a classroom but ought to be moved to a mine-like setting.

"They must have a better understanding of what it is like to put these units on in the dark, in the smoke, in the anxious moments that follow after an explosion or fire underground," Roberts said.

Inspection of mine rescue equipment was one of the amendments that Miller had wanted to propose.
Clearly, there's more to be done. But that will have to wait at least until next year, when hopefully the AFL-CIO's "common sense" -- and a Democratic majority -- will return to the US Congress.