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Murray Scrutinizes Implementation, Enforcement of Landmark Mine Safety Law

May 22 2007

Seventeen months after Sago tragedy and nearly one year after MINER Act signed into law - Murray examines whether the Bush administration is protecting America's mine workers

(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) chaired a hearing to examine the implementation of safety measures established under the MINER Act. The MINER Act is the landmark legislation which established guidelines for mine emergency response plans, training, post-accident communications and safety inspections. The legislation, which was signed into law on June 15th, 2006, came in response to the tragic mine catastrophes at Sago and Aracoma mines in West Virginia. Senator Murray joined Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV), Edward Kennedy (D-WA), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) to craft the MINER Act. Since the Act went into law, there have been serious questions about the Bush administration's effort to implement several of its requirements.

"Since our law was signed, it has been up to the Bush Administration -- and specifically the Mine Safety and Health Administration -- to aggressively implement the law," said Senator Murray. "So far, I'm concerned that the slow pace of reform is leaving America's miners at risk. The MINER Act is an important tool to protect workers, but it needs to be enforced if we're going to make real progress."

Among other requirements, the MINER Act stipulates that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) must ensure that mines have emergency response plans, make technical improvements, provide reliable communications, install refuge chambers, and provide oxygen supplies. At the hearing, Murray expressed her frustration with the pace of change and highlighted the urgency of the problem.

"A rescue team that doesn't exist, an emergency plan that's incomplete, a radio that doesn't work, an oxygen supply that's not available and a shelter that hasn't been built won't help protect miners when the next disaster strikes," Murray said. "We can't wait for that next disaster. We need those safety components in place today."
At today's hearing Murray also vowed to continue to work to improve mine safety through new legislation.
"We're going to hold MSHA and mine owners accountable, and we are not stopping with the MINER Act," Murray said. "That's why I'm working with Senators Kennedy, Byrd, and Rockefeller to draft new legislation to further improve mine safety with advances like proximity detectors, improved record keeping, and updated asbestos standards for mines."
The following are Senator Murray's Opening Remarks at today's hearing:

Audio - Senator Murray's Opening Remarks

As a country, we have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans on the job. Last year, after the horrible mine accidents in West Virginia, Congress stepped forward and passed the MINER Act, the most comprehensive mine safety reforms in a generation.

I was pleased to help draft that bill with Senators Kennedy, Byrd, Rockefeller, Enzi and Isakson. We held hearings, we heard from the experts, and we created a comprehensive system to address glaring holes in the safety net that miners rely on.

The MINER Act mandates comprehensive emergency response plans, evacuation plans, post-accident communications, breathing air, training, and coordination with local emergency responders. The MINER Act also requires flame-resistant lifelines, state-of-the-art two-way wireless communication, electronic tracking systems, more training for miners and safety inspectors, and higher penalties for safety violations.

Since our law was signed, it has been up to the Bush Administration -- and specifically the Mine Safety and Health Administration -- to aggressively implement the law. Things did not get off to a promising start. Instead of nominating a safety leader to run MSHA, the Bush Administration chose a status quo mining official. In the weeks before, we passed the MINER Act, Richard E. Stickler told me that he could not name a single reform that was needed. Congress - and the rest of the country - saw things differently. I voted against Mr. Stickler's confirmation [Read] because his background and his answers did not demonstrate to me that he recognized the urgent need to fully and aggressively implement the MINER Act.

Today, as we approach the first anniversary of passage of the MINER Act, this subcommittee is doing its job of oversight. The question is - Is MSHA doing its job to protect America's miners?

So far, I'm concerned that the slow pace of reform is leaving America's miners at risk. We've made progress, but MSHA has not moved aggressively to implement all of the provisions of the MINER Act. Let me share a few examples.

We required more rescue teams. Today, we don't have them. We required mines to have emergency response plans. Most mines have yet to finish them. We called for new technical improvements, reliable communications, and refuge chambers. Those improvements are still sitting on the drawing board. We required mines to install oxygen supplies. In some cases, MSHA told mine owners they're in compliance just for ordering the equipment, but MSHA has not pushed to have those oxygen supplies installed.

A rescue team that doesn't exist, an emergency plan that's incomplete, a radio that doesn't work, an oxygen supply that's not available and a shelter that hasn't been built won't help protect miners when the next disaster strikes. We can't wait for that next disaster. We need those safety components in place today.

With the MINER Act, Congress gave the Bush Administration the tools to keep America's miners safe. Nearly one year later, the Bush Administration has done too little and moved too slowly. I am unwilling to let the situation continue. We're going to hold MSHA and mine owners accountable, and we are not stopping with the MINER Act. That's why I'm working with Senators Kennedy, Byrd, and Rockefeller to draft new legislation to further improve mine safety with advances like proximity detectors, improved record keeping, and updated asbestos standards for mines.

The MINER Act is an important tool to protect workers, but it needs to be enforced if we're going to make real progress. As we examine what other countries, such as Australia and Canada have done to protect their miners, there is certainly room for real improvements in the health and safety protections for American workers. We must build on the MINER Act promises and speed its implementation.

We know that research - like the research being conducted by the NIOSH Spokane Research Laboratory in my home State of Washington - is identifying new ways for us to understand the risks of mining and how to better protect workers.

I remain committed to giving America's miners a workplace that is safe, and I want to thank our witnesses for sharing their expertise. This morning, we will hear from Dr. Jeffrey Kohler with NIOSH, Mr. Dennis O'Dell from the United Mine Workers of America, Mr. Steve Bessenger from the San Juan Coal Company, and Bruce Watzman from the National Mining Association.

Testimony of today's hearing witnesses.