Mine Safety Concerns Remain after Sago

One of America's largest miners' unions has released a report faulting the coal industry and the federal government for the Sago mine incident of 2006. The report comes as mine safety legislation passed in the wake of the incident has yet to be fully enforced.

On March 15, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) released Report on the Sago Mine Disaster of January 2, 2006. The report claims friction within the mine caused the explosion in Sago, WV, which killed 12 miners (none of whom were union members). The report states the accident was completely preventable and blames the mine's owner and federal and state regulatory bodies for the incident. UMWA also includes recommendations for improved mine safety.

Claiming friction as the cause of the explosion runs contrary to the position of the mine's owner, the International Coal Group (ICG), and the State of West Virginia. ICG claims "overwhelming evidence" that lightning was the cause of the explosion. A panel writing on behalf of the West Virginia government found a lightning strike to be "involved." However, UMWA claims the strike occurred at too great a distance and without a conduit through which an electric surge could reach the mine. UMWA claims "frictional activity from the roof, roof support or support material" caused the methane gas explosion.

The report also claims the accident would not have occurred if federal law had been properly enforced. UMWA primarily blames ICG and the federal agency in charge of enforcing mine safety laws, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), for conditions which contributed to the deaths of the 12 miners. According to the report, ICG and MSHA did not adequately recognize or enforce statutory provisions related to mine seals, two-way communication in to and out of the mine, mine rescue teams, fresh air ventilation, oxygen supplies within the mine, safety chambers, and tracking devices to determine the exact location of trapped miners.

In response to the report, ICG's president and CEO said in a statement, "The UMWA has rolled out this so-called report with its usual bombast; however, upon closer review the report is simply a propaganda piece designed to criticize and undermine the state and federal mine regulators and ICG, whose miners continue to work union free."

In the report, UMWA recognizes Congress's efforts to improve mine safety through the Coal Act of 1969, the Mine Act of 1977 and most recently the MINER Act. UMWA places future responsibility on MSHA, recommending the agency adopt a more robust regulatory agenda in order to prevent future disasters from occurring. The report states, "The Agency's decisions over the past several decades to promulgate regulations, grant petitions for modi¬fication and create policies that contradict the intent of Congress by reducing or eliminating the legislated protections played a major role in the tragic events of January 2, 2006."

Shortly after the Sago mine explosion — and the May 2006 Darby mine explosion in Kentucky which killed five miners — Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act). The legislation requires the regular development of accident preparedness plans, improved availability of rescue teams and equipment, and increased amounts of breathable air. Several provisions of the law are accompanied by deadlines for their implementation. President Bush signed the MINER Act into law in June 2006.

On Feb. 1, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao concerning implementation of the MINER Act. Miller's letter identified three areas where the Department of Labor has missed deadlines for the implementation of the MINER Act. The provisions are availability of self-rescuing equipment; improved evacuation training; and availability of caches of breathable air. In the letter, Miller says, "I think your progress in these three areas is a critical bellwether of your commitment to the law."

Since the initial letter of Feb. 1, MSHA has issued guidance recommending a minimum amount of breathable air but did not directly address Miller or the committee. The committee has sent three follow-up letters. No one at the Department of Labor has replied to any of the correspondence, according to committee staff.

Miller's committee also released a report on implementation of the MINER Act. The report details Miller's concerns and faults MSHA and the mining industry for inadequate progress.

On Feb. 28, the Senate held a hearing to investigate the progress of the MINER Act and the overall state of mine safety. MSHA administrator Richard Stickler defended the agency's progress and called implementation of the MINER Act the agency's "top priority." However, J. Davitt McAteer, former MSHA administrator and mine safety expert from Wheeling Jesuit University, said, "In the months since the Sago disaster, much has changed and much more is in progress, but unfortunately for the average miner underground today not much has improved from the day-to-day safety and health standpoint."

Miller has scheduled a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on March 28. The hearing, Protecting the Health and Safety of America's Mine Workers, is likely to address the enforcement of the MINER Act as well as the UMWA report. Witnesses have not been announced. The hearing indicates Miller's desire for the committee "to take a thorough look at mine safety and health in this country, including the need for additional policies, regulations or legislation."

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