House Bills Address Mining Health and Safety Shortfalls
by Sam Kim, 6/26/2007
Two House bills introduced June 19 address health and safety issues left out of the MINER Act passed in 2006 after coal miners died in three separate accidents in Kentucky and West Virginia. The bills also include provisions that will allow the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), often criticized for slow implementation of mining laws, to better address new and existing protections.
Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, introduced H.R. 2768, the Supplementary Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (S-MINER) Act and H.R. 2769, the Miner Health Enhancement Act of 2007. In introductory remarks, Miller described the bills as part of an effort "to clean up years of neglect and backsliding" by President George W. Bush's administration and a "complacent" mining industry. The bills come after a series of committee hearings, reports and requests for information from the administration.
The MINER Act of 2006 was passed to address immediate safety concerns after 47 people died in mining accidents that year at the Sago, Aracoma Alma, and Darby mines. Many health and safety provisions discussed after those accidents were not included in the MINER Act. Following the accidents, however, the Kentucky and West Virginia state legislatures passed significant new health and safety measures designed to take advantage of new technology and to improve state enforcement of safety violations. These state actions are considered model proposals for improving mine safety.
The House bills address some of the states' concerns and are intended to supplement the MINER Act and provide a variety of improvements to safeguard miners' health and safety. The bills would also provide services to the families of miners. The S-MINER Act, for example:
- would require mine operators to develop more detailed emergency plans and implement new safety features such as improved communications during emergencies, upgraded standards for conveyor belts, gas and smoke monitoring systems, and sealing abandoned areas of mines;
- would supplement enforcement authority of mine inspectors, establish new penalties on mine operators for violations, provide MSHA with subpoena powers, and create an ombudsman to hear miners' safety complaints and to protect whistleblowers;
- would enhance rescue, recovery and accident investigation authority by requiring prompt notice of serious accidents and "near misses," require improved logistical support for rescue teams, and allow supplemental mine accident investigations by the independent Chemical Safety Board; and
- would revise the 1977 congressionally-mandated standards for respirable coal dust to those long recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
H.R. 2769 addresses directly other critical health issues Congress mandated in 1977 but never revised or updated. The bill would require MSHA to use the asbestos standard that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses for other workers instead of the weaker asbestos standard currently in place for miners. It would also require MSHA to update the list of permissible exposure limits in its air quality standards to the recommended exposure limits set by NIOSH.
In addition, H.R. 2769 would require MSHA to use the hazard communication standard issued in October 2000, which was in place when the Bush administration came into office. According to Miller's statement, the administration amended the hazard communication rule in June 2002 to weaken the timeliness of scientific information on workplace health risks provided to miners.
Also on June 19, Miller and Rahall, along with Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), announced a Mine Safety and Health Initiative to help improve health and safety in U.S. coal mines.
H.R. 2768 and H.R. 2769 are part of the initiative. Both bills have been referred to the House Education and Labor Committee. Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate.