Major MINER Act Reform Bill Passes House Committee

By a vote of 26 to 18, the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee approved H.R. 2768, The Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, on Oct. 31, sending a major reform of last year's MINER Act forward to the full House. Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., says the bill will help to prevent mining disasters, improve emergency response when disasters do occur, and reduce long-term health risks such as black lung disease. “Our aim is a simple one: We want to do everything we can to ensure that miners are able to return home safely at the end of their shifts," Miller said.

He's pushed for a stronger bill all year and says the 56 U.S. miner deaths in 2007 illustrate why it is needed. The National Mining Association disagrees; while MSHA has said it is carrying out the existing MINER Act on schedule, this bill demands much more. It would add new safeguards for retreat mining, require that seals inside mines withstand pressure of 240 pounds per square inch, give MSHA subpoena authority, direct mines to begin using fire-resistant conveyor belts to carry materials to the surface, require MSHA to develop its own emergency response plan within six months, require NIOSH and MSHA to conduct random inspections of miners' self-contained self-rescuers, and create a miner ombudsman's office to handle safety complaints from miners. The bill also establishes rules for independent investigations of mining disasters and calls for better tracking and communications equipment, more reliable air supplies, and use of refuge chambers. As for black lung disease, the bill would halve the maximum level of coal dust to which miners could legally be exposed and would require the use of tamper-proof technology to measure exposure levels.

United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts called the bill "a huge step in the right direction for the health and safety of American coal miners. This legislation gives the Mine Safety and Health Administration the tools it needs to be a true, tough watchdog for mine health and safety, improving on the MINER Act that was passed last year," Roberts added. "The real test for MSHA will come when this legislation becomes law. We will see then if the agency will actually enforce it."

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