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Senate Holds Hearings on Mine Safety

January 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: An agonizing two-day wait came to an end on Saturday –

SPOKESMAN: Unfortunately we don’t have a positive outcome.

KWAME HOLMAN: — with the announcement that two missing miners in West Virginia were found dead.

Rescue workers found the bodies at the Alma Mine 1 in Melville. The miners were trapped when a conveyor belt fire got out of control less than three weeks after another mine disaster claimed 12 lives at the Sago Mine. That was the nation’s deadliest mining accident in more than four years.

The explosion deep in the mine followed a series of government safety citations against the International Coal Group, the company that owns the Sago Mine. It was cited 208 times last year, 17 of them for serious violations including the accumulation of combustible materials.

Both mines now are shut down while federal investigators try to determine what caused the disasters. The incidents have sparked debate about whether current laws and enforcement do enough to protect miners.

NORMAN HARVEY: I am angry about it because they are so much of this going on, it shouldn’t happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Survivors of the mine accident said newer technologies could have saved others.

BILLY MAYHORN, Miner: The one man we lost was close to us. We could have got him, no problem, with a tracking device.

KWAME HOLMAN: The debate shifted to Capitol Hill today where representatives of the Federal Mine Safety Agency, the Mine Workers Union, and the coal industry, were convened for a Senate hearing on the Sago Mine disaster and mine safety.

Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, head of the committee responsible for funding mine safety, questioned the administrator of the Mine Safety and Health Agency.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: The Sago Mine had 208 citations in the year 2005; was any of those citations a causative factor in this disaster, any of the facts uncovered in the citations a causative factor for this disaster?

RAY McKINNEY, Mine Safety & Health Administration: I think we’re still investigating the disaster itself. And that will be determined by the investigation team if there’s anything there that we saw through the course of those inspections.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: The possibility that one or more of these violations might have been the cause of the disaster?

RAY McKINNEY: All those 208 violations had been abated and corrected. The only outstanding violations that we had had to do with roof conditions and tunnel liners being cushioned and things of that nature; the other conditions had been corrected.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I noted that these two 208 citations resulted in fines of slightly in excess of $27,000. Was that sufficiently tough punishment for so many citations, Mr. Dye?

DAVID DYE: There are nine of the toughest ones, the most serious ones, have been appealed. And those haven’t been assessed yet. The net result of that could double or triple even more.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Was the $27,000 in fines sufficient for those which haven’t been subject to appeal?

DAVID DYE: They are ones that are determined through a formula under our guidelines and they are appropriate.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: We’re going to take a close look at that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia noted that fines haven’t always worked.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Let me cut right to the chase. Is there too much opportunity here for cronyism? I wonder if the regulations are being enforced without fear of favor and the fines are being levied, are they heavy enough? They don’t seem to be. Too often industry just seems to pay the fines and go right ahead and keep doing the wrongs. What do we have to do to fix that? It seems in part to have been the case here.

DAVID DYE: Well, the first thing would be the administration has sent to the Senate and, well, to the House as soon as it reconvenes a provision to raise the penalties for flagrant violations to $220,000.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: But is that just a tap on the wrist?

DAVID DYE: No, I think that’s substantial.

The other thing I’d like to mention is with respect to withdrawal orders, closing down sections of the mine. That can be a very, very powerful tool, in my opinion, even more powerful than citations because if you close down a production area until a hazard is abated, that could cost a company in lost revenues anywhere from $50,000-$150,000 for a single shift.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ben Hatfield, CEO of the company that owns the Sago Mine, said he was open to increased fines.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Do you think it’s time to increase the penalties perhaps commensurate with the increase in coal prices?

BEN HATFIELD: I think it’s certainly a reasonable area of review. We have no objection whatsoever to review of the penalties because I suspect that’s not been visited in some time. But I would echo a comment made by Mr. Dye earlier, that the real penalty is the threat of shutting down a production section far beyond the fine level.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Just about to come to that. Do you endorse that?

BEN HATFIELD: I believe that’s an appropriate tool for enforcers and regulators to use. And we certainly saw it used at Sago Mine and other mines, yes, sir.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: How about the idea of user fees on the mines to pay for all of these investigations and rescue teams and all of the other safety procedures which may be in order? They really go to the benefit of the mine companies that earn the profit. What do you think about a user fee?

BEN HATFIELD: I think it’s certainly an area that’s worth looking into. I don’t know many of the facts or the premises but certainly it’s an area that’s fair for discussion and advancement.

KWAME HOLMAN: Overall, mine safety has been improving. In 1907 more than 3200 miners died in accidents nationwide compared to just 22 last year as the number of miners also has decreased, there were only about 88,000 last year down from 220,000 in 1978.

How to improve miners’ chances of surviving a disaster was key for Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, himself the son of a coal miner, who noted that technologies to keep track of miners in a disaster already exist.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Let me ask you about this tracking device.

DAVID McATEER, Former Assistant Secretary of Mine Safety: Yes, sir.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Where is it made? Do you know where it’s made? I think it’s made in Australia. I’ll just answer my own darned question.

DAVID McATEER: I believe it is.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: You say it’s about 20 bucks.

DAVID McATEER: That’s something that I –

SEN. TOM HARKIN: But with this $20 you could locate any miner that had that?

DAVID McATEER: There’s a transponder that is stationed throughout the mines and then you can locate any individual at any time.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: You know exactly where they are.

DAVID McATEER: That’s correct.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: 20 bucks. How many miners wear these and take these underground with them?

DAVID McATEER: Currently?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Yeah.

DAVID McATEER: I don’t know. It’s very, very small, perhaps none.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Do you know, Cecil?

CECIL ROBERTS: If I had to give you an answer I’d say none.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: 20 bucks.

CECIL ROBERTS: I’m not aware of that being anywhere.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: And in case of a mining disaster, what, two of the most important things: Communications, location. Where are you? And how can we communicate? This tells you where are you –

Now you have got this device here. It’s got a battery. A message comes through right there so you can talk to one another.

CECIL ROBERTS: Yes, sir.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: And, obviously I didn’t know this. It also has a light too. You obviously have to have a light to be able to –

DAVID McATEER: See, this is attached to the miners’ lamp. Every miner carries one of those.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: The device is attached to the battery.

DAVID McATEER: The battery and the advance is that part on top that gives you an ability to text message from the surface to the miner.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Right here.

DAVID McATEER: That’s correct, sir.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: And so you can tell them what to do. So now with this you know where they are. With this you can tell them what to do.

DAVID McATEER: That’s right.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Those are available. Now, how many miners have this available to them?

DAVID McATEER: We believe we’ve checked with the manufacturer, and 14 mines in this country are using those.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Fourteen mines are using these.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Out of how many mines?

DAVID McATEER: Fifteen thousand.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: I don’t know, Mr. Chairman, it just seems to me, that you hate to regulate everything but doggone it, if they won’t do it, we have got to tell them to do it. It seems to me this is something that every miner ought to have available — period.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio Republican Mike DeWine asked what safety priorities the industry should have.

CECIL ROBERTS: The most immediate thing we could do, I believe, to give the miners their best opportunity to survive and I think that’s where we have to start, is to immediately put additional oxygen devices underground.

SPOKESMAN: More?

CECIL ROBERTS: That’s point one. point No. 2, if there had been ability to talk to these miners, probably would have told them your best opportunity for survival is to leave, and we had even have sent mine rescue teams towards them as they walked outside, and perhaps we would have had more miracles here today.

KWAME HOLMAN: Officials in West Virginia are not waiting for the federal government to act. State lawmakers are expected to complete legislation tonight requiring mining companies to install electronic tracking and oxygen reserves and rapid response system.