Senators say mine safety agency needs more money

Last year’s 1 percent across-the-board spending cut left the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s budget $2.8 million below Bush’s request.

Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee panelists on Monday called for increased spending on mine safety enforcement and updated technology following two deadly West Virginia coal mining accidents this month.

At the first congressional hearing on mine safety since these accidents, Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he has told Senate leadership that he will not support a fiscal 2007 budget resolution or budget reconciliation measure that does not "adequately" fund the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The agency's efforts have been shortchanged in recent years because of inadequate funding, Specter said, including last year's 1 percent across-the-board cut in federal spending that left the MSHA's budget $2.8 million below the Bush administration's request. President Bush will request more funding for mine safety technology in his upcoming fiscal 2007 budget request, MSHA Acting Administrator David Dye told the subcommittee.

Panel Democrats also blamed lax MSHA enforcement and the Bush administration's decision to forego new mine safety regulations in favor of voluntary efforts at individual mines. "These deaths I believe were entirely preventable," said Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. Congress needs to examine why MSHA "failed to protect them," he said.

Panelists questioned how a Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners at the International Mining Group's Sago Mine could have occurred after MSHA cited the mine 208 times for various violations in 2005, including $27,000 in fines. Ninety of those violations were deemed serious or significant.

While defending federal enforcement actions that have decreased the number of mining injuries and deaths in recent years, MSHA officials also are asking Congress to increase the statutory cap on penalties that can be assessed on mining companies from $60,000 to $220,000 per violation.

Democrats criticized the lack of a rapid response to the Sago explosion. Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called for "better coordinated rescue procedures." The Sago Mine explosion was followed by a fire last Thursday in southern West Virginia that killed two miners.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee also will hold a hearing on mine safety March 2.

MSHA is conducting a joint investigation into the Sago mine accident with the state of West Virginia. Despite persistent inquiries from subcommittee panelists, MSHA officials on Monday were not able to give a timeline for the release of recommendations resulting from that investigation.

Meanwhile, the National Mining Association announced Monday it will fund an independent commission to issue recommendations by mid-year on updating safety and rescue technology. Ideally the commission will recommend "a lot of things that industry can do on a voluntary basis so we don't have to wait for regulation and legislation," an NMA spokeswoman said.