Miner Safety Bill Clears House, Bush Veto Looms

by Rick Melberth*, 1/23/2008

The House passed the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) on Jan. 16. The bill aims to improve mine safety and the responsiveness of the federal government's chief mine regulator, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), in response to the Crandall Canyon mine collapse and other recent disasters. White House officials have indicated President Bush will veto the bill.

The S-MINER bill (H.R. 2768) passed the House in a 214-199 vote, largely along party lines. The bill creates additional federal protections for miners and clarifies provisions of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act), which Congress passed in the wake of the Sago, Aracoma, and Darby mine disasters of 2006.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the S-MINER bill's primary sponsor and the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said further improvements to mine safety are needed and blamed the Bush administration for not being more responsive: "Even after these recent tragedies, even after the MINER Act of 2006 was enacted, we continue to see neglect from this Administration."

The bill requires MSHA to tighten federal standards for retreat mining — the controversial technique in which miners remove support pillars in order to intentionally collapse areas of the mine no longer in use. Currently, MSHA must approve retreat mining plans before a mine can engage in the technique. The bill would require MSHA to perform a more thorough review of those plans and perform on-site monitoring of retreat mining to ensure compliance.

Retreat mining was used in Utah's Crandall Canyon mine. In August 2007, the Crandall Canyon mine collapsed, trapping and killing six miners. Days later, three workers were killed during a rescue attempt. Prior to the collapse, MSHA had approved a plan for the use of retreat mining at Crandall Canyon.

The bill would also expand MSHA's ability to deal with mine owners and operators who are in violation of federal regulations. One provision allows the Secretary of Labor to halt production at mines if operators refuse to pay civil penalties. The bill also provides MSHA with the power of subpoena.

The bill also requires MSHA to take interim steps to improve emergency response technologies while permanent regulations, required by the MINER Act, are being finalized. MSHA would have to enhance communications technology that could be used in the event of a collapse while wireless technology is being developed. The S-MINER Act also requires mines to provide miners with breathable air sources (such as air cylinders) while MSHA finalizes regulations on refuge chambers.

The bill aims to reduce the prevalence of black lung, a severe lung disease caused by exposure to coal dust. In the 1960s, growing concern over the disease caused the federal government to act to limit exposure. Progress was made in combating the disease, but recent studies show the reverse is now happening. The S-MINER bill requires mine operators to use better technology for measuring coal dust exposure and cuts in half the federal exposure limit for coal dust.

The bill also calls for a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report examining the effect that various analytical requirements impose on MSHA regulators. The bill explicitly asks NAS to review the impact of the Regulatory Flexibility Act, the Data Quality Act, White House memos on cost-benefit analysis and risk management, and Executive Order 12866 as amended by Executive Order 13422. The bill asks NAS to "[q]uantify to the extent possible the costs to miners of the aforementioned requirements."

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced Jan. 15 that President Bush would likely veto the S-MINER bill if Congress approves it in its current form. OMB states the bill would jeopardize progress currently being made in the implementation of the MINER Act, arguing, "Several of the regulatory mandates in the S-MINER bill would weaken several existing regulations and overturn regulatory processes that were required by the MINER Act and are ongoing."

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called the vote, "A tremendous victory for coal miners throughout America." UMWA President Cecil Roberts also counters OMB's argument, saying the MINER Act is largely aimed at making improvements after accidents have occurred while the S-MINER Act intends to prevent accidents, injuries, and illnesses.

Roberts also challenged Congress to finish work on the bill despite Bush's veto threat: "President Bush has threatened to veto the S-MINER Act. I say, put it on his desk and make him do it."

The S-MINER bill will now move to the Senate. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has expressed support for the bill and said in a statement, "I intend to see that the Senate acts as soon as possible."