WASHINGTON A bill passed through a House committee Wednesday would bolster safety measures for coal miners and add new rules for retreat mining at depths of more than 1,500 feet underground.
But critics say some of the provisions in the bill are already in place under current law, and some of the new safety rules proposed in the bill could harm Utah mining companies.
The danger of retreat mining is one of the factors being considered in the investigation into the Crandall Canyon Mine accident. Six miners who had been working about 1,500 feet underground in the mine were trapped in the August collapse, and their bodies haven't been recovered. Three rescuers died days later in another collapse.
Retreat mining involves excavating coal from an underground chamber while leaving behind pillars of material for support. Once the deposit is depleted, miners remove the pillars and "retreat" back toward the mine's entrance.
The technique was being used at Crandall Canyon. Initial reports of the collapse at the mine gave the appearance the collapse could have been caused by earthquake activity. Scientists later concluded pressure on the pillars within the mine caused portions of the pillars to burst.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced his mine safety bill just weeks before the accident, with the aim of building on a mine-safety law passed last year that he believed did not go far enough in reforming safety rules to protect miners.
With a 26-18 vote, the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday passed Miller's Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the S-MINER bill, which will send it to the House floor. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who sits on the committee, voted against the bill.
"It's hard to find something positive about this thing," Bishop said after the vote.
Bishop said the original MINER Act, passed 2006 in wake of the Sago Mine disaster, needs time to be fully implemented before Congress should act to change it. He said some of the provisions in Miller's bill are already in place, and some of the bill's proposed new safety rules could harm Utah's mining industry.
One provision in the bill would put stricter rules on conveyor belts used to bring coal out of mines, forcing mines to get rid of old belts after five years and requiring new belts to use the latest technology. Bishop said belt mining is used more in Western states than in Eastern mines, so Utah mining companies would face a financial disadvantage.
Miller's bill also puts a full-time position at the Mine Safety and Health Administration to deal with communicating with the media and families after an accident.
"The MINER ACT required MSHA to be in charge of communication with families and the press during a rescue in order to prevent the dissemination of incorrect and misleading information. The first test of this new authority was at Crandall Canyon, and it failed miserably," said Miller, the committee's chairman.
In the days following the Crandall Canyon accident, mine owner Bob Murray personally handled meetings with the miners' families and the media. At a House committee hearing last month, families of miners who died in the accident blamed Murray and MSHA officials for poor treatment and communication.
But Bishop called the new bill's provision "superfluous," saying the law in place already calls for better communication.
Republicans on the committee tried three different amendments to the bill, from a one-sentence change to one that would have removed major portions of the bill. All three failed, although Bishop voted in favor of all three.
Miller said the law approved in 2006 "was too weak," with deadlines for implementing new policies and regulations too far in the future.
"Our aim is a simple one: We want to do everything we can to ensure that miners are able to return home safely at the end of their shifts," said Miller, who describes his bill a "comprehensive approach to minimize the health and safety risks facing miners."
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the committee's top Republican, called Miller's updates to the current law "premature at best."
"At worst, I fear it could undermine critical efforts to enhance mine safety," McKeon said. "I cannot support any proposal that could undermine or impede the progress that is being made."
MSHA head Richard Stickler wrote the committee Monday saying that the bill has good intentions, but some provisions in the bill "would mandate 10 regulatory changes, impose at least 16 new mandates, create new unneeded offices with MSHA and fundamentally change the MSHA accident investigation process."
Stickler said that even if all the changes in the bill can be justified on their own, "taken as a whole, the proposed changes would cause serious administrative problems for MSHA, weaken several critical MSHA safety standards, and in some instances, impose new safety requirements that are unrealistic or unlikely to make a substantive improvement in mine safety and health."
But the United Mine Workers of America International called Miller's bill a "huge step in the right direction for the health and safety of American coal miners."
"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, and just how callously some coal operators disregard the mine safety laws that are already in place," UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. "Miners are still dying."
Miller said 25 coal miners and 28 metal and nonmetal miners have died on the job this year. His bill addresses "disaster prevention, improved emergency response and long-term health risks."
The bill calls for more strict reviews of retreat mining, particularly at depths of more the 1,500 feet underground. The measure also would create an MSHA ombudsman position, so that miners and their families would have an "expert, independent, confidential outlet for reporting safety concerns," Miller said.MSHA would have to create its own overall emergency response plan and would be granted subpoena authority. Mines would need to use underground refuge chambers by June 2008. And random inspections would be required of miner's personal air packs, known as self-contained self-rescuers or SCSRs.