Mine safety agency under fire for slow compliance with 2006 law

Coal mines have not caught up with safety standards enacted by Congress last year, a panel of witnesses told the House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday.

House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., who criticized last year's Republican legislation for not going far enough, criticized Assistant Labor Secretary Richard Stickler, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, for not acting faster to implement the new standards.

"I don't get your sense of urgency. I'm lost somewhere," Miller said during the oversight hearing.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who represents the district where the January 2006 Sago mine explosion killed 12 miners, called on MSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to require inflatable rescue shelters at each mining site.

"NIOSH and MSHA must speed up their process and ensure that miners across the country will have access to these life-saving chambers as soon as possible," Capito said.

Miller said MSHA's process for approving seals in a mine to secure abandoned areas and protect workers against deadly methane gas was too long. Stickler said the agency's approval process, which can take up to two and a half years, was fully compliant with the 2006 law.

"I believe that MSHA needs the time established in the Miner Acts to conduct testing and establish a protocol," he told Miller.

The new safety law, enacted in June 2006, requires mine owners to supply two hours' worth of emergency oxygen for miners, install fire-resistant lifelines to serve as escape routes and install wireless two-way communications devices and an electronic tracking system within three years.

Davitt McAteer, a former head of the MSHA who led investigations into two West Virginia mining disasters last year, told committee members that "miners still lack wireless phone systems, rescue chambers are not yet installed, and the mine rescue system, although improved, is not yet available to miners and the mine rescue system."

Echoing Miller's criticism of the bureaucratic logjam at MSHA, McAteer said that "this unfinished business of protecting workers' health and safety is the result of a broken rulemaking system." A total of 47 coal miners were killed on the job last year.

A Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday revealed that federal mine safety inspectors, who are employed by MSHA, do not receive adequate training and that the agency's "oversight of miner training is hampered." MSHA does not routinely assess its inspectors, consistently perform emergency simulation drills or regularly educate its staff on new technologies.

"Underground coal mine operators face significant challenges preparing for emergencies, including ensuring that miners receive training to satisfy new requirements," GAO said.

Wednesday marked the second hearing on mining safety this year. Miller, who has made the issue central for the committee's agenda, is expected to hold additional oversight hearings on MSHA and the mining industry.

"Members are clearly frustrated with the pace MSHA is moving on a number of issues," a Miller spokesman said. "We will be looking at all our options to make sure miners are protected, including legislation."

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