Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Lots of Developments, Good and Otherwise

Richard Stickler, former director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, spoke at his confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He had some good things to say about his long experience in mining, mine safety and mine rescue. But Senators of both parties appeared to me to be frustrated by his noncommittal responses on many points as they asked for his commitment to making changes. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) pressed Stickler repeatedly to meet with the families of the Sago victims, and soon, if he is confirmed. Stickler's final response was inaudible.

MSHA has just reversed itself on a two-year-old secrecy policy under which the agency has refused to release inspector notes under FOIA until all possibility of litigation has expired (potentially years in some cases). The policy had changed more than 25 years of practice and seemed to please no one. Yet it required bipartisan requests from Congress(Republican, Democrat) to get MSHA to do the right thing. The unannounced adoption of the policy first was brought to light by Mine Safety and Health News in 2004, and most recently hit the pages of Time . Inspectors' notes have not been the only subject of a FOIA rollback at MSHA, but they are significant and it's gratifying that the agency has returned to following the law on this point.

Pete Galvin, who worked in MSHA's Office of Standard, Regulations and Variance in the 1990's, is now in the office of Rep. George Miller (D-Mass.) and focusing on mine safety and health issues. He gave the okay to publish his contact information for any friends who might like to get in touch: (202) 225-3656, or e-mail peter.galvin@mail.house.gov

West Virginia's federal legislators have just introduced potentially far-reaching mine safety legislation in Congress. Information from Senator Byrd's office follows.

For immediate release: Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Contact: Jennifer Reed, 202-224-3904; Mark Ferrell, 304-342-5955

West Virginia Federal Delegation Introduces Mine Safety Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C.... U.S. Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced legislation aimed at preventing future fatal mine tragedies. The legislation, written by all five members of the West Virginia Congressional Delegation, will focus on several areas, including rapid notification and response, tougher penalties for habitual safety violators, emergency communications and breathing equipment, and expanded use of advanced safety technologies. The text of Senator Byrd’s introductory remarks are below.

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It has been almost one month since the explosion that killed twelve miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia, and almost two weeks since the conveyor belt fire that killed two miners at the Aracoma Alma Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. In that time, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor has briefed my office on several occasions. The Senate-Labor HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, at my request and under the leadership of Chairman Arlen Specter and Ranking Member Tom Harkin, has held a hearing and solicited testimony from mine safety experts. The West Virginia Delegation in the House and the Senate has met with the Governor of West Virginia, the White House Chief of Staff, and the acting MSHA Director to review mine safety legislation passed by the West Virginia Legislature in the wake of the Sago and Alma tragedies.

We now can speak with some certainty about what contributed to the tragedies at the Sago and Alma Mines that killed 14 coal miners. We know that these tragedies have highlighted gross weaknesses in mine emergency preparedness, and the failure of leadership at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to get tough about rescue procedures.

We know that communications technology in our nation's coal mines is inadequate. The federal mine regulators require only that a telephone line connect the working sections of mines to the surface. If that telephone line doesn't work in the event of an emergency, the miners trapped underground are cut off from the rescue effort. Those on the surface cannot get a message to the miners underground, and the miners underground cannot get a message to those on the surface. At the Sago and Alma Mines, families waited in anguish for forty hours, not knowing if their loved ones were alive or dead, because the communications equipment in the mine didn't work.

We know that federal mine safety officials cannot immediately locate miners trapped underground. At both the Sago and Alma Mines, families waited and waited, while rescue teams searched meticulously through the underground caverns. Those teams could only make educated guesses about the location of the trapped miners, putting the rescue teams' lives and the lives of the trapped miners at increased risk while the search went on.

We know that the MSHA notification and response system is ponderously slow. Federal mine safety officials did not know of the Sago explosion until two hours after it happened, and it took another nine hours before rescue teams could enter the mine. The same thing happened at the Alma Mine. Federal mine safety officials did not know of the underground fire for two and one-half hours, and, in that time, the fire spread and got worse.

We know that federal mine regulators require only that miners have a one-hour emergency breathing device, and, at the Sago Mine, one hour of oxygen was not nearly adequate to sustain those miners through a forty-hour rescue operation. We also know that the Mine Safety and Health Administration, tragically, abandoned its assessment of the rules governing these one-hour emergency breathing devices in December of 2001.

We know that the mine rescue teams, at both the Sago and Alma Mines, were forced to wait for a frustrating amount of time because the coal operators had to negotiate the question of liability before the rescue teams could enter the mines. We know that federal mine regulators have been aware of this liability problem since 1995, and that MSHA has not taken steps to address it, or to update and improve rules related to the number of rescue teams per mine and their ability to respond rapidly. The only recent effort to update these rules was halted by MSHA in 2002.

The Sago Mine was a habitual violator with 276 citations and orders issued in 2004 and 2005. The coal operator never paid a fine more than $440, even though mandatory health and safety standards were repeatedly violated. Meanwhile, MSHA assessed fines as low as $99 for violations that were classified as "significant and substantial" in threatening the safety and health of the miners at Sago.

MSHA has broad authority to protect coal miners, and the 1977 Mine Act is the strongest and most sweeping workplace safety law ever enacted in the United States, and, yet, even with these tools, the Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to protect the 14 miners who perished at the Sago and Alma Mines.

MSHA has the authority to require that secondary communications equipment be available in the event of an emergency. That authority was not used. It has the authority to require that emergency breathing devices be placed in the mines in the event of an extended recovery effort. That authority was not used. MSHA has the authority to penalize habitual violators, and to close those mines where pattern violations threaten a miner's life. That authority was not used.

MSHA is the federal agency charged with protecting coal miners, but it has scuttled 18 initiatives in the last five years to update and improve miner safety and emergency preparedness. Its leadership has embraced the status quo as good enough, and that attitude puts lives at risk.

In the past, mine disasters such as these have spurred tougher mine safety laws. The Farmington, West Virginia, disaster spurred the 1969 Coal Act, and subsequent disasters spurred the 1977 Mine Act. This time, the legacy of the Sago and Alma Mine disasters must be a tougher agency that will enforce the law.

Together with Senator Rockefeller and the West Virginia Delegation in the House, I am introducing legislation today that is a mandate for action. Our legislation does not amend the Mine Act. Our delegation takes the position that the Mine Act already provides the Labor Secretary with every authority necessary to prevent these kinds of tragedies. Instead, our legislation directs the Labor Secretary to employ the authorities of the Mine Act. It directs the Labor Secretary, within 90 days, to promulgate a series of health and safety rules aimed at improving mine safety enforcement and emergency preparedness.

It directs the Labor Secretary to establish a rapid notification and response system, and requires coal operators to expeditiously notify MSHA of emergencies. Any coal operator who fails to expeditiously notify federal mine safety officials, will be subject to a $100,000 fine. We must reduce the amount of time that is lost between a mine emergency and MSHA's notification and arrival on the scene.

Our legislation directs the Labor Secretary to reassess regulations that govern mine rescue teams to ensure that their numbers are sufficient, and that obstacles to their deployment are minimized. Mine rescue teams ought to be able to respond just as local fire department would respond to an emergency. It must not take 11 hours.

Our legislation requires coal operators to store additional emergency breathing supplies underground to sustain miners who may be trapped for an extended period. It requires the Labor Secretary to update and improve the rules governing emergency communications equipment that would allow miners underground to communicate with surface rescue efforts, and allow surface rescue efforts to locate miners underground. Never again should a miner lack access to a reasonable supply of oxygen underground or be unable to receive directions from the surface about escape routes.

On the enforcement side, our legislation requires the Labor Secretary to create a new $10,000 mandatory and minimum penalty for coal operators who display negligence or reckless disregard for safety standards. By negligence or reckless disregard, I am talking about coal operators who knew or should have known of a dangerous condition or practice, and failed to take the steps necessary to fix the problem, or who displayed conduct which exhibits a deplorable absence of care for the safety and health of the miners. If penalties are required in this kind of situation, then this statutory floor will help ensure that those penalties will hurt and hurt sufficiently to encourage violators to comply with the law.

Our legislation prohibits the use of belt entries for ventilation in contravention of an MSHA regulation issued in 2004, which likely played a part in the Alma fire.

Our legislation creates a science and technology office in the Labor Department to help expedite the introduction of the most advanced health and safety technologies into the mines, and to ensure that federal mine safety officials are actively pulling from other federal agencies those technologies that can help to protect miners. No longer should miners be sent underground with safety equipment that is decades out of date.

Our legislation creates the new position of ombudsman in the Labor Department's Inspector General office to allow miners to more easily report safety violations. To be effective, such a position requires the appointment and confirmation of someone with at least five years of expertise in mine safety and health. A miner should never have to feel that he has no options other than to continue to work in a dangerous environment.

I speak from the heart. I grew up in a coal miner's home. I married a coal miner's daughter. My brother-in-law died of black lung. His father was killed by a slate fall in a coal mine. For five years, the leadership in the Labor Department and the Mine Safety and Health Administration has worked against the health and safety needs of coal miners. If we must hold the hand of the Labor Department, and lead it like a stubborn and obstinate child, to force it to promulgate rules to implement the Mine Act and save lives, then that is exactly what we should do. If this Administration and MSHA will not lead, then this Congress must lead, and, if necessary, poke, prod, kick, and push MSHA into fulfilling its mandate.

At this late date, we need more than platitudes to protect the safety of our nation's miners. We need resources. We need swift action. We need to impress deeply upon the psyche of MSHA and the nation's coal mine operators that the safety of miners will not be compromised for personal profit or for politics.

Protecting the safety of our miners is a moral responsibility, and this legislation will help to make sure we never, ever, forget that.
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Meanwhile, we lost another coal miner, in Utah this time...the Salt Lake Tribune has the story. And, lest we forget, another miner, in a bulldozer accident in Oregon. These guys are miners too, and the number of non-coal mining deaths last year increased notably.

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