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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Coal Mine Safety and Health

Linda Levine
Specialist in Labor Economics

Fatal injuries associated with coal mine accidents fell almost continually between 1925 and 2005. In 2006, however, the number of fatalities more than doubled to 47, which prompted the 109th Congress to enact the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER, P.L. 109- 236). Fatalities declined in subsequent years and dropped to a low of 18 in 2009. After the deaths of 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, the 111th Congress turned its attention to the issue of mine safety.

In the wake of the methane explosion at Sago mine in West Virginia in January 2006, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was criticized for its slow pace of rulemaking earlier in the decade. MSHA standard-setting activity quickened after enactment of the MINER act in June 2006. The amendment of the 1977 Mine act emphasized factors thought to have played a role at Sago and other recent incidents, and imposed several rulemaking deadlines on MSHA. The agency published all the requisite final standards except one: the MINER act required that, by June 15, 2009, two-way wireless communications systems and electronic tracking systems be part of emergency response plans (ERPs). In January 2009, MSHA issued a letter stating that "because fully wireless communications technology is not sufficiently developed at this time, nor is it likely to be technologically feasible by June 15, 2009 ... [n]ew ERPs and revisions to existing ERPs should provide for alternatives to fully wireless communication systems."

Some Members characterized passage of the MINER act as a first step. In 2008, the House passed the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) as amended. Some of the bill's provisions addressed issues that arose from the Crandall Canyon Mine incident in Utah in August 2007. S-MINER was opposed by the Bush Administration.

In 2010, one issue policymakers have focused on is the greatly increased number of citations for violations being contested by mine operators. The UBB mine incident brought to public attention the potential implications for miner safety of operators appealing to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) penalty assessments proposed by MSHA. Through publication of an interim rule and a notice of proposed rulemaking in spring 2010, FMSHRC intends to speed its civil penalty proceedings and thereby more quickly issue final orders that MSHA can include when determining whether a mine should be placed in pattern of violations (POV) status. The Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 (H.R. 5663), introduced on July 1, includes provisions changing POV criteria as well as withdrawing all persons from coal or other mines in POV status and doubling the number of mandated inspections at those mines. The bill also defines in statute significant and substantial mine safety and health violations, strengthens whistleblower protections for miners and other workers covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), and amends civil and criminal penalty provisions in the Mine act and the OSH Act. H.R. 5663's amendment of the OSH Act is similar to provisions in the Protecting America's Workers Act (H.R. 2067, S. 1580). The Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on the bill on July 13, 2010.

Date of Report: June 15, 2010
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: RL34429
Price: $29.95

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