Sen. Byrd's Sleight of Hand Bans Belt Air

U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, dean of the Senate and master of its rules, inserted language in the omnibus appropriations bill signed into law by President Bush that will bar "belt air" -- sending breathable air into the depths of a coal mine via a conveyor shaft used to move mined coal to the surface, the Louisville <i>Courier-Journal</i> reported Jan. 28. Belt air has been opposed by mine safety experts and United Mine Workers for years, and it has been studied extensively by MSHA, but has not been banned until now.

James R. Carroll of the newspaper reported that Byrd's language inserted in the bill also directs quick deployment of refuge chambers for underground coal miners, which were evaluated by NIOSH in a recent report and recommended for deployment. The West Virginia senator also added $34 million to MSHA's budget to hire more inspectors and implement the new rules, Carroll reported. The UMWA Web site linked to his article.

Both MSHA and Tony Oppegard, a former safety regulator for Kentucky and also for the federal government, praised the changes Byrd has accomplished, according to the article. "They're positive steps for coal-mine safety, and the coal miners will benefit from them," he told the newspaper. It quoted Richard Stickler, MSHA's acting chief, as saying the additional money "will allow MSHA to continue executing our plan to carry out 100 percent of mine inspections and to complete implementation" of the MINER Act. The language gives MSHA until June 20 to effectively ban belt air, "except in limited cases approved by the head of MSHA," and the rules must be finalized by Dec. 31, 2008, Carroll reported.

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