WASHINGTON — The Mine Safety and Health Administration published a proposed rule Monday calling for underground coal mines to have a place for workers to be safe if they cannot escape quickly in the event of an accident.

The rule marks another step in the agency's "unprecedented" pace in getting out rules for the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the MINER Act, which Congress passed two years ago this week, according to MSHA head Richard Stickler.

"While miners must continue to follow their first instinct — which is to withdraw from the mine in the event of an emergency — this proposed regulation calls for a protected, secure space that creates a life-sustaining environment when escape is not possible," Stickler said.

In the last 18 months, MSHA has published six final rules in the Federal Register, issued an Emergency Temporary Standard and proposed four additional rules, including the latest one on underground refuges that appeared in the Federal Register on Monday, according to MSHA.

While critics on Capitol Hill have complained it has taken too long for MSHA to implement provisions of the MINER Act, Stickler said rules have never come out at this rate before.

Stickler also said MSHA has hired more than 300 inspectors over the past two years to scour the nation's underground coal operations for unsafe working conditions. The agency has 750 inspectors with the 322 new hires. But because of resignations and retirements, the new hires represent a net increase of 163 inspectors.

The agency has been beefing up its work force in an effort to increase inspections after a series of mining disasters from West Virginia to Utah. Forty-seven miners were killed on the job in 2006, one of the deadliest for miners in more than a decade. Six miners and three rescue workers also died in 2007 at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah, while 15 mining fatalities have been reported nationwide since Jan. 1.

A 40-year-old coal miner was reported dead Monday after a below-ground accident at the Harmony Mine near Mount Carmel, Penn., about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Federal and state inspectors were dispatched to the mine, owned by UAE Coal Corp. Associates.

A report last year by the inspector general found that MSHA had failed to carry out inspections at 107 of the 731 underground coal mines operating in 2006, or 15 percent of the total.

Stickler said he also has embarked on a plan to ensure inspectors complete required visits to every coal mine in the nation, aided by $10 million earmarked for overtime pay this year.

"We're doing everything we can to see that we make all the mandated inspections," he said.

Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer, said that without additional inspectors, MSHA had been unable to meet a federal requirement to visit each mine four times annually.

"It was an absolute necessity that they add additional inspectors," he said. "In my view, the best days that coal miners have underground are the days that inspectors are underground."

Stickler is scheduled to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday on progress on mine safety since the 2006 passage of the MINER Act. Others scheduled to speak are Dr. Jeffery Kohler, associate director for Mining and Construction at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Dennis O'Dell, administrator of Occupational Health and Safety for the United Mine Workers of America; and Bruce Watzman, vice president of Safety and Health at the National Mining Association.

MSHA said Monday's proposed rule on refuges is based on data and experience, recommendations from a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report on refuge alternatives, research on available and developing technology, and existing regulations in several states.

The refuges alternative and its components must be tested and approved by MSHA before being used. A mine's emergency-response plan must include the location, capability and capacity of refuge alternatives, according to the proposed rule.

The refuge components, such as breathable air and harmful gas removal, would need to sustain individuals for 96 hours, or 48 hours if advance arrangements are made for additional supplies from the surface of the mine, according to MSHA. The rules also require food, water, lighting, first-aid supplies, sanitation provisions and two-way communication system — although a communication system that can work deep underground is still in development.

MSHA estimates that the proposal, if implemented, would cost the coal industry between $84.1 million and $102.6 million in the first year and between $38.7 million and $43.3 million a year after that.

MSHA will hold four public hearings on the proposal. One hearing will be in Salt Lake City on July 29, and others will take place in West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama throughout the summer.

Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, said the union is still evaluating the proposal, but at first read, the initial concern is that MSHA requires materials for a refuge to be in the mine, and it does not require an actual refuge to be built. Smith said the chances of the miners building a refuge on their own are "pretty slim."

As for progress on the MINER Act, Smith said the agency is still behind, and the law still concentrates on what to do after an accident. Smith said pending legislation would keep accidents from happening in the first place and "be pre-emptive."

In January, the House passed a Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as S-MINER, which says mines need to have better communication equipment now instead of by 2009 as called for in the 2006 bill. But experts have cautioned that the technology is not there yet.

The Senate still needs to take up the bill, which supporters think is necessary, especially in the wake of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster. Opponents of the bill want to give MSHA more time to implement all the MINER Act rules before seeing yet another bill on it come through Congress.

If you go

What: The Mine Safety and Health Administration will hold a public hearing on a proposed rule that would require coal operators to install airtight emergency refuges underground for workers in the event of accidents. The proposed rule may be read online at edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-13565.htm

When: Tuesday, July 29

Where: Radisson Hotel; 215 W. South Temple; Salt Lake City


Contributing: Associated Press.

E-mail: [email protected]