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2006 mine safety law left out proposed reforms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When federal lawmakers passed a major new mine safety law following a series of disasters in 2006, they left out some of the toughest reforms originally proposed by West Virginia's congressional delegation and advocated by two independent reports commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin.

Congress dropped proposals for tougher mandatory penalties for the violations linked to reckless disregard for safety rules, tighter coal dust limits and more concrete details for adding new emergency response equipment, such as breathing devices and miner tracking gear.

And after passage of the MINER Act in 2006, the Senate declined to take up a House-passed follow-up bill that would have tightened limits on coal dust that causes black lung disease and can help fuel powerful explosions.

The follow-up bill also would have mandated a detailed study of whether more comprehensive "rock-dusting" was needed to prevent fires and explosions in longwall mines like Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died last week in the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.

There's no way to know yet if any of these reforms would have prevented last week's disaster in Raleigh County. But mine safety experts say regulators and political leaders should re-examine every possible avenue for putting a stop to such disasters.

"This ought to be the end," said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. "We shouldn't have another disaster."

McAteer led independent investigations for Manchin of the Sago and Aracoma accidents, and issued sweeping reports that called for reforms that aimed to "put safety on par with production."

"Safety and health protection must be systematically engineered into all mining activities," McAteer wrote in his report on the Sago disaster.

In the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Southern West Virginia's elected officials have promised a state investigation, congressional reviews, and possibly a public hearing that would examine the incident and try to come up with more reforms. So far, though, most leaders are declining to embrace any of the specific measures that were considered four years ago, but then dropped to win passage of the MINER Act and avoid a veto by President Bush.

"It is premature to say what changes in laws or regulations may be needed until the investigation is underway," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. "But I have called for a re-examination of the health and safety laws that have been put into place and what more may need to be done to avoid future loss of life."

After 14 miners died in January 2006 at the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire, West Virginia lawmakers passed a reform bill to improve the chances miners would escape from an underground explosion or fire. Members of West Virginia's congressional delegation pushed for a new national law, but Congress declined to act until five more miners died in May 2006 in an explosion at the Kentucky Darby Mine.

But the West Virginia delegation's bill was watered down to win support from the coal industry and the Bush administration. The bill that passed focused on responding to explosions and fires, rather than on tougher enforcement and accident prevention.

"If we are serious in our hearts about preventing these things, the reforms need to be very comprehensive, looking at all aspects of safety and all aspects of health, and not just things about responding in the event of a disaster," said Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA staffer who now teaches and researches public health and worker safety issues at George Washington University.

In January 2008, the House of Representatives passed follow-up legislation called the S-MINER Act. It would have required sweeping new enforcement authority, and independent investigators would probe all major accidents. Mine operators would have to comply with tougher coal dust limits and more stringent rules on exposing workers to other hazardous substances.

Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., voted for the bill. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., voted for it as well, but only after first voting for an unsuccessful Republican substitute measure and for a failed effort to kill the legislation.

The bill stalled in the Senate when Bush threatened to veto it, and Democrats did not believe they had enough votes to override a veto.

Pete Galvin, a former congressional staffer who worked on mine safety issues, said last week, "Unfortunately, mining communities remain reluctant to press their representatives for reform, and the companies and their trade associations fight any legislative or regulatory or enforcement action with all the legal talent that their money can buy.

"And too many politicians and organizations representing the region are overly cautious, afraid their constituents or members will see their efforts as yet another nail in the coffin of their jobs," Galvin said. "The families from Sago, Darby and Crandall Canyon, joined by families from prior disasters, motivated the House to pass S-MINER. Perhaps when they are joined by the families of Upper Big Branch, attention will once again focus on all the weaknesses in the current law - and this time we will have senators and an administration willing to act."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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