How Byrd Changed the Rules

In March 2007, we told you why the “belt air” controversy still raged, 30 years after passage of the Mine Act. Six months later came a MINER Act technical study panel’s recommendation to continue use of belt air—the practice of ventilating work areas in an underground coal mine via the shaft through which a conveyor belt moves coal to the surface—but only as long as MSHA district managers take special care to evaluate whether it can be used safely for all miners involved.

It took U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, to put teeth into that recommendation. Dean of the Senate and master of its rules, Byrd made sure an extra $45 million went to mine safety when President Bush signed the Fiscal Year 2008 omnibus appropriations bill into law on Dec. 26, 2007. Byrd added language that gives MSHA until June 20 to rewrite its belt air rule as the panel suggested; the practice will be barred except in limited cases approved by the head of MSHA. Byrd’s language also requires MSHA to get refuge chambers into the mines quickly. Both new rules must be finalized by Dec. 31, 2008.

“Changes need to be made at MSHA that will result in safer mines,” said Byrd, who convened an Appropriations Committee hearing into MSHA’s performance last fall and knew MSHA’s coal mine inspection rate had declined in his state. Adding $34 million to the agency’s 2008 budget lets it hire more inspectors and achieve its goal of 100 percent in mine inspections this year. The other $11 million went to NIOSH for its ongoing work on new emergency breathing devices, communications, and tracking equipment.

“I have heard from the federal inspectors in my state about the need for additional resources and staff, and I am doing my best to help. They have my gratitude and deserve our continued support, as well as commendation for their dedication to saving lives,” Byrd said. “I am hopeful that we will look back on this period and see that mine safety took a major leap forward.”

His maneuver wasn’t an earmark, although it would fall under Bush’s Jan. 29 executive order to corral earmarks. What Byrd did also wasn’t “bridge to nowhere” appropriation pork. Our longest-serving senator did the right thing to resolve the belt air controversy and push miners’ safety onto a better track.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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