Tougher Mine Safety Rules Clear Hurdle In House
A panel of lawmakers investigating the August mine disaster that claimed nine lives at Crandall Canyon in Utah approved tougher mine safety rules Wednesday that would add new safeguards inside coal mines while giving federal officials more authority to go after mine operators who fail to pay fines for safety violations.
The new rules would also place tighter restrictions on the use of "retreat mining," whereby pillars of coal used to hold up a mine's roof are pulled to extract the last salvageable coal in an otherwise empty section of a mine.
Crandall Canyon's owner, Robert E. Murray, had received permission from federal authorities to engage in retreat mining, despite the previous mine owner's determination that the practice would be too risky at the Utah site.
"The American public has seen for itself - far too often over the last two years - just how bad safety conditions in some coal mines in this country can be," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said Wednesday. "This committee of Congress has shown that it is listening to the people and is doing their will."
Introduced in June, and known as the S-MINER Act, the bill took on an added sense of urgency after the Crandall Canyon tragedy. The legislation expands upon the mine safety rules passed in the wake of the Sago disaster, which killed 13 West Virginia coal miners in 2006.
It aims some of its toughest provisions at mining companies, as well as the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The new rules give MSHA teeth to go after mine operators who flout orders to pay for safety violations.
MSHA officials would also be granted subpoena authority to go after company records, and federal officials would gain new powers to halt production at mines that did not pay delinquent penalties or correct safety violations in a timely manner.
In the weeks following the Crandall Canyon collapse, critics argued that federal mine safety officials were too lenient with mining companies that sought to evade penalties, and said that the agency lacked the authority to fully ensure compliance with safety rules.
"Right now companies can be assessed fines, but if they don't pay them there are no penalties, there are no repercussions except bad publicity," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the mine workers union told The Huffington Post.
On Wednesday, the House Education and Labor Committee, chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) approved the legislation on a 26-18 party line vote. The full House is expected to vote on the new rules before adjourning for the winter holidays, and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
While no lawmaker has come out against the new mine safety rules, those watching the legislation say it remains to be seen whether there are 60 votes in the Senate to pass the bill.
Miller's panel is one of three congressional committees investigating the Crandall Canyon collapse and MSHA's response to the disaster. Sources on Capitol Hill say that after initial foot-dragging, the Department of Labor, which oversees MSHA, as well as Murray Energy Corporation have begun cooperating with subpoenas to turn over documents and communications related to the collapse.
Labor Department attorneys had argued that complying with the subpoenas, which requested copies of communications and emails about the response to the disaster, would stifle internal debate inside the administration.