U.S. House Labor Committee Keeps Heat on MSHA

Hefty fines and revamped regulations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration aren't coming fast enough for the chairman and other members of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, which held a hearing Wednesday to keep the pressure on for more aggressive protection of miners. A six-ton emergency mine shelter erected on the Capitol grounds, said by the committee to be capable of housing up to 35 people safely for up to 96 hours in an underground mine emergency, was a prop for the hearing.

"This shelter is not a prototype. It is not a concept design. It is available for sale to mine operators right now," Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said. "If a shelter like this one had been installed at the Sago mine, then it’s likely that 11 of the 12 miners who died there last year would be alive today. The state of West Virginia has required mine operators to install shelters in all underground coal mines. There is no reason why MSHA can't require the same thing nationwide."

The hearing included testimony from witnesses that MSHA should move faster on such shelters and other protections. "MSHA could benefit from an injection of the sense of urgency that has taken hold in my state," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who participated and chairs the Committee on Natural Resources. "Unfortunately, MSHA has not committed itself to any timeline that would mandate the use of refuge chambers." Another witness was Davitt McAteer, former MSHA chief and leader of West Virginia's investigation of the Sago Mine explosion. "In a regulatory system that is broken and incapable of rapidly and effectively addressing the many hazards still faced by U.S. miners, direct congressional intervention . . . may be justified and would not be unprecedented," he said. It was a star-studded panel of witnesses, including MSHA's current chief, Richard Stickler; Jonathan Snare, former acting head of OSHA and currect acting Solicitor of Labor; and Larry Grayson, chairman of the University of Missour-Rolla's Department of Mining and Nuclear Engineering and chair of a National Mining Association special commission formed after Sago to examine the underground coal industry's safety culture and technologies and to recommend improvements. The panel delivered its extensive report late last year.

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