WASHINGTON The Mine Safety and Health Administration needs to do a better job of implementing emergency response plans, including finding a wireless communications system Congress called for in a 2006 mining reform law, the Government Accountability Office said Tuesday.
The report comes just before the Senate will hear Thursday from MSHA head Richard Stickler and other witnesses about the latest efforts to improve mine safety.
Murray Energy chief Bob Murray was expected to testify about last year's accident at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County before the same Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday, but senators have told him he can wait until after MSHA completes its investigation into the accident.
Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and top Republican Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sent a letter obtained by the Deseret Morning News to attorney Barry Levine, saying that they have postponed Murray's appearance, but a subpoena issued in November is still in effect until further notice.
The subcommittee still will hear from Elliot P. Lewis, assistant inspector general for audit in the Labor Department's Inspector General Office. Lewis signed the IG report issued last week that blamed MSHA for negligence leading up to the collapse.
MSHA did not fare well in Tuesday's GAO report either, with the yearlong study finding that the agency has not fully implemented the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the MINER Act, passed in 2006. In a 65-page report, GAO said MSHA needs to give the mines better guidance and oversight as to how to manage and implement emergency response plans called for under the MINER Act.
"It is uncertain whether all miners will be adequately protected in the event of an accident," according to the GAO report. "We found that some plans did not specify the protections to be provided, and the amount of information about these protections varied from plan to plan."
A backlog of permissible breathable air equipment under the MINER Act has forced most mines to wait for it, and MSHA has not determined what technology would be acceptable to use to meet the mid-2009 deadline for wireless communication to help talk to or locate trapped miners, GAO found.
"While alternatives are currently available, MSHA headquarters officials told us they had no immediate plans to issue guidance detailing what technology would be acceptable in meeting the June 2009 requirement because they wanted to wait and see how new technologies developed by then," according to the GAO. "Given the delay, it is uncertain whether mine operators will be able to plan for and order the appropriate technology to meet the deadline, thereby missing opportunities to improve the chances of miners trapped in an underground coal mine after an accident to survive until they are able to be rescued."
GAO said MSHA should work on clarifying what needs to be in emergency response plans and develop guidance for mines to meet the June 2009 deadline for wireless communication systems.
"After all of the high-profile attention that this industry has gotten in recent years, due to tragedies such as Crandall Canyon and Sago, it's inexcusable that our miners do not yet have the most up-to-date and comprehensive safety and health protection available," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif, who heads the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.
Woolsey, along with House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and 23 other House members, including Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, sponsored a bill the House passed in January aimed to add on to the MINER law. The Senate still has to pass the bill.
Miller pointed out that the supplement to the MINER Act would require operators to find other options for adequate air supplies while refuge chambers are not ready yet, and it would require mines to quickly use some type of communication system and to enhance that system as new technologies become available instead of waiting for what may come down the line.
Miller introduced the bill just weeks before a collapse in August trapped and eventually killed six miners at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington. A subsequent collapse days later killed three rescuers.
In a response to the GAO report, Stickler wrote that as of March 17, 2008, there are 552 emergency response plans for all active producing underground coal mines being implemented. Stickler said MSHA will give its district office updated guidance to better evaluate the plans.
Stickler also said that MSHA has been working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to look at available communication and tracking devices.
Matthew Faraci, MSHA spokesman, said it appeared that Miller "did not want the facts of the report he commissioned to get in the way of his headline-grabbing remarks.
"The report actually noted MSHA's work to further mine safety, including as of January 2008, all underground coal mines 'had implemented all or most components of their emergency response plans,"' Faraci said in a statement."The report added that mines had not yet fully implemented two components because the technology for a completely wireless system 'is not available' and needed equipment for breathable air 'was not available' from manufacturers. MSHA will implement GAO's helpful recommendations along with other safety improvements already under way," he said.
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