June 17, 2008

MSHA Still Behind on MINER Act, Despite Advances

By Ken Ward Jr.

[email protected]

As legal deadlines approach and some advances are made, federal regulators still lag behind in implementing a two-year-old, landmark mine safety law, critics said this week.

Two years ago Sunday, President Bush signed into law the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response, or MINER, Act.

New rules have been finalized to require stronger underground mine seals, more and better mine rescue teams, and stiffer monetary fines for serious safety and health violations.

And on Friday, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced it was proposing new rules to require rescue chambers in underground coal mines.

"While miners must continue to follow their first instinct - which is to withdraw from the mine in the event of an emergency - this proposed regulation calls for a protected, secure space that creates a life-sustaining environment when escape is not possible," said Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA.

Still to come from MSHA is a response due next week to a task force report that recommended the agency toughen its restrictions on the use of conveyor belt tunnels as fresh air intakes in underground mines.

And while MSHA is struggling to meet MINER Act deadlines, the agency is also moving forward with at least one other regulatory proposal that is sure to be controversial.

Earlier this month, Stickler submitted to the White House a proposal rule concerning drug and alcohol use in the coal industry.

The proposal is still under review by the Office of Management and Budget, and MSHA has not responded to requests for details of the plan.

Coal industry officials have been pushing for MSHA-mandated drug testing of miners or some other regulation. The United Mine Workers union is wary of such proposals, especially because some companies have said a regulation would help them combat safeguards given to workers under UMW contracts.

And MSHA critics say that the agency is nowhere near living up to the mandate of the MINER Act, passed after 2006 disasters at the Sago and Darby mines and the fire at the Aracoma Alma Mine.

In April, the U.S. Government Accountability Project reported that miners across the country are still waiting for emergency gear mandated by the MINER Act.

A Senate subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony on progress and problems with MSHA's implementation of the MINER Act during a hearing on Thursday.

Last week, House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D- Calif., sent a detailed letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to outline a variety of concerns:

* While moving to require mine rescue chambers as a long-term option, MSHA is not also mandating that mine operators immediately provide miners with emergency breathable air until rescue chambers are delivered.

* MSHA is allowing "ambiguity" in the meaning of the word "wireless" to delay requiring mine operators to upgrade their underground communications equipment, despite advice to the contrary from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

* Top MSHA officials have not provided district field offices with concrete guidance for review and approval of required emergency response plans, to ensure that all miners nationwide receive the same level of protections.

"Thanks to legislative action and public pressure, progress has been made in some areas of mine safety and health in the last few years, but major gaps remain in providing protections that the public and the Congress determined should be provided," Miller said in his June 11 letter to Chao.

In Friday's announcement on rescue chambers, MSHA said the proposed rule meets the requirements of the MINER Act.

But the MINER Act itself required only that MSHA respond within six months to a NIOSH study of underground mine shelter alternatives. After the Democrats took over Congress, they added language to this year's Labor Department budget bill that actually required MSHA to write regulations that required mine operators to install shelters underground.

For nearly 40 years, federal law has given MSHA and its predecessor agencies authority to write such regulations. But agency officials from both parties have never done so, despite various government studies that concluded shelters were a good idea.

And publication of the new MSHA proposal, scheduled for Monday's Federal Register, is actually one day behind the June 15 deadline set by this year's budget legislation.

MSHA will accept public comments on the proposal through Aug. 18. Agency officials have scheduled four public hearings, including one at 9 a.m. July 31 at the Charleston Marriott. Copies of the proposal are available at www.msha.gov.

Under the budget bill, MSHA must finalize the rule by Dec. 31.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348- 1702.

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