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Senators reach deal on mine safety

WASHINGTON — Senators announced a legislative deal Tuesday that they said would make coal mining safer, including requiring more oxygen to be stored underground in reaction to the Sago mine disaster that killed 12 miners in West Virginia in January.

The Senate committee that oversees mine safety issues is expected to consider the bill today. The measure would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of one as under the current policy. It also would require mine operators to store extra oxygen packs along escape routes.

The proposal would require that any emergency air supplies stashed in mines be monitored for reliability. Randal McCloy Jr., the only miner who survived at Sago, has said that at least four of the miners’ air packs did not work, forcing the men to share.

One man was killed in the blast and 11 others died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The air packs are among the most widely used emergency devices in mines, but they have a history of problems such as deteriorating air hoses and excessive carbon dioxide emissions, according to a review of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

The mine agency recently issued a temporary safety rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen supplies, but miners and their advocates have been pressing Congress for a permanent fix.

Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the top lawmakers on the committee that oversees workplace safety issues, have promised families of the miners killed in the Sago accident that they would take steps to improve safety conditions at coal mines.

“Congress should pass this legislation immediately, and the president should sign it into law this year,” Kennedy said.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., are co-sponsors.

The two Democrats said the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act includes principles contained in legislation sponsored by West Virginia’s congressional delegation in February.

Dennis O’Dell, the top safety expert at the United Mine Workers of America, said of the proposed changes, “I think we should have done that way before now, but I’m happy to see that we’re moving forward with that.”

The bill also would require mines to have two-way wireless communications and tracking systems in place within three years.

O’Dell said the three-year period is too long, but the provision did win praise from the National Mining Association, the industry trade group.

“NMA is especially gratified by the bill’s inclusion of measures to improve communications and tracking and enhance mine rescue and air supply,” Kraig Naasz, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Relatives of some of the miners killed in the Sago accident attended a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge that mine safety legislation be passed this year.

“Safety has got to be put before production, and it’s got to be put before profits,” said Deborah Hamner, whose husband George Hamner was killed at Sago.

Hamner said she came to Washington “to be a voice for coal miners.”

Lawmakers are listening, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on a House subcommittee that oversees mine safety issues.

“Now we’re going to see some action,” predicted Miller, who introduced a mine safety bill in the House on Tuesday. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who chairs the House subcommittee, said he planned to introduce mine safety legislation by the end of the month.

Under the Senate bill, seals for abandoned sections of mines would have to be strengthened. The cause of the blast at the Sago mine about 100 miles north of Charleston has not been determined but is believed to have occurred in an abandoned section of the mine that was sealed off.

The bill also would require rescue teams to be one hour away, rather than two hours away — the current standard.

The measure also would increase fines against mine operators who don’t comply with safety rules, and raise the maximum civil penalty from $60,000 to $220,000.


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