WASHINGTON Ten days before a Utah mine collapse that left six miners trapped underground, the national miners' union told Congress that current safety rules even reforms passed just last year are not enough to protect workers.
President Bush signed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the MINER Act, last year, but union leaders and mining-industry experts have complained that not all of the new requirements have been put into place and that mines are not following the rules.
"The job is not done," said Dennis O'Dell, administrator of Occupational Health and Safety for the United Mine Workers of America at a House Subcommittee on Workplace Protection hearing July 26.
Congress passed the safety reforms after a dozen miners were killed in an underground explosion in West Virginia. The reforms were meant to protect miners in the event of a fire, explosion or cave-in like last year's disaster at the Sago Mine. But government-mandated changes involving communication and tracking equipment do not take effect until 2009.
Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said Tuesday that even with the MINER Act in place, the situation for miners is "no better" than it was when the Sago accident occurred because key rules are taking too long to be finalized.
Smith said that if communications and tracking tools mandated by the MINER law had been in place at the Utah mine, rescue crews looking for the six miners would know "exactly where they are and how they are." He added that the mining companies are not likely to put the stronger safety requirements in place "unless and until someone tells them to," so it is up to the government to move the process along.
Among other requirements, the new law calls for mines to install wireless two-way communications and an electronic tracking system, permitting rescuers on the surface to locate miners trapped underground. The law also requires mines to have two experienced rescue teams available and capable of a one-hour response time.
Also waiting to go into effect are rules dealing with refuge chambers, additional mine rescue teams and stronger seals between active and inactive mine shafts. The law gives the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) until the end of this year to deal with these issues.
MSHA had issued 33 citations this year for health and safety violations at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, a dozen of which were considered significant and substantial. Among those, the mine was cited for not having at least two mine rescue teams available at all times when miners are underground.
Because of purchasing delays, the mine also did not have the required equipment in place to provide 96 hours of air, food and water. A federal official said manufacturing delays had prevented the Utah mine from stockpiling the required four days of food, water and oxygen.
"It's been very difficult for the industry to get these things," said Allyn Davis, a district manager in MSHA's Denver office.
The owner of the Utah mine has said the trapped men should have plenty of air if they are alive because oxygen naturally leaks into the underground chambers. He said the mine also is stocked with drinking water.
In June, MSHA director Richard Stickler said about half of the country's 670 underground coal mines had two air packs for each miner and 15 percent had stored sufficient air packs along escape routes. Manufacturers had delivered 86,000 air packs as of June, and the National Mining Association estimated 100,000 were on backorder.
In February, the House Education and Labor Committee issued a 38-page report on the MINER Act status, saying it is "proceeding too slowly."
"Delays put miners' lives at unacceptable risk and must be avoided," the report said, pointing out that MSHA has not required mine operators to provide hardened shelters underground, rescue teams are not as readily available and that communication is poor.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in February that "very little has changed in the last year concerning the ability to communicate with and locate trapped miners."
The efforts of the MSHA in the last year "would do little to change matters today if a mine were to experience an explosion like the one at Sago, or a mine fire like the one at Alma," Roberts said. "Indeed, the underground miners would likely fare no better than those who perished over one year ago."
But at the July 26 House hearing, Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health Program, said that the agency has implemented the new law's provisions "often ahead of schedule and beyond the requirements of the act."
To fulfill the law's requirements for communications and tracking systems, Stricklin said, MSHA has had meetings with 55 communications and tracking system companies and has approved 22 systems, including six new devices.
"MSHA is using all available tools, including tough enforcement, education and training, and technology, to achieve its goal of safer and healthier mines," Stricklin said.
National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said Tuesday that the industry had seen an improvement in safety until the Utah accident. Raulston said the technology to get a communication system to move through a mountain is not ready yet, but in the areas the industry can make progress, it has done so.
"I think we have been moving pretty quickly," she said.
At least two bills now before the House and Senate would expand the MINER act and create new safety requirements.But the National Mining Association told Congress on July 26 that it wants to focus on implementing the MINER act and that any other legislation passed at this point would be "premature and possibility counterproductive." Raulston said the industry needs time to assess what it has accomplished so far and what it is in the process of doing before having to face more changes.
Contributing: Associated Press E-mail: email@example.com