WASHINGTON — A congressional committee Wednesday approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, that aims to improve communications equipment required in mines.

The House Science and Technology Committee's action came a day after the Senate approved a $1 million study on retreat mining.

Accidents at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine in August claimed nine lives, pushing mine safety to the forefront in Congress.

Matheson's bill, approved unanimously via voice vote, directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to study the existing limitations of tracking and communications equipment used inside mines.

"We need next-generation technology that tracks and communicates with miners when accidents occur," Matheson said. "Mine safety is our top priority and, as we learned in the Crandall Canyon mine tragedy, there's a gap in our ability to locate these miners when tragedy strikes."

The bill will go to the House floor for a vote.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved a $1 million study on mining practices and more than $3 million in other Utah projects.

The Senate passed the Labor and Health and Human Services spending bill, which included an amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, ordering a look at retreat mining. The process involves removing support pillars left when regular mining has concluded, in order to glean the coal left in them.

"The tragedy at Crandall Canyon Mine struck a chord not only with Utahns but all Americans," Bennett said. "I appreciate the quick action and interest by my colleagues in the Senate to further examine the implications of deep coal mining."

The bodies of six miners remain inside the Crandall Canyon mine in Huntington after a collapse in August trapped them. Three rescuers died in a subsequent collapse while trying to get them out.

It is not clear what role, if any, retreat mining played in the collapse, but federal investigators are still examining the accident.

Through the study approved by the Senate Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services, University of Utah, and West Virginia University will look at the practice.

Bennett, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also included funds for health education and other programs important for Utah.

"Improving health care and education rank high on the list of priorities for Utahns," Bennett said. "The programs funded in this bill take a significant step toward addressing illiteracy, improving access to health care in rural areas and increasing the number of health care professionals to meet our growing medical needs."

Among other funding, the bill includes $500,000 to help fund the More Nurses Now Program at Weber State University, which has been turning away students because of a faculty shortage. This is earmarked for the university to recruit and hire qualified new faculty, expand classroom space and ultimately increase the number of nursing graduates, according to Bennett's office..

The Health Sciences Education and Training Center at Salt Lake Community College also receives $500,000 to help move more students through SLCC's health programs, which include nursing, radiology, physical therapy, biotechnology, and dental hygiene.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com