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Tuesday, August 24, 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.

Following 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 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (the Mine act) imposed several rulemaking deadlines on MSHA. The agency published all the requisite final standards except one that required two-way wireless communications systems and electronic tracking systems be part of emergency response plans (ERPs) by June 2009. In January 2009, MSHA issued a letter stating that fully wireless communications technology was not likely to be technologically feasible by the deadline so ERPs should include alternative 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 and related penalty assessments being contested by mine operators. The UBB mine incident brought to the fore the potential implications for miner safety of operators filing appeals with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC). 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. In addition, H.R. 5663 as amended and passed by the Committee on Education and Labor on July 21, 2010, changes the POV criteria, allows withdrawal of all persons from coal or other mines in POV status, and raises the number of mandated annual inspections at those mines. It also strengthens whistleblower protections for miners and other workers covered by the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, and amends civil and criminal penalty provisions in the Mine and OSH acts. On July 29, S. 3671 was introduced. It is similar in most respects to H.R. 5663 as introduced, including amendment of the OSH act. And, the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2010 (H.R. 4899), signed into law on July 29, provides $3.8 million to FMSHRC to address its backlog and $18.2 million to the Labor Department for such activities as conference litigation related to contested cases and investigation of the UBB mine incident.

Date of Report: August 6, 2010
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: RL34429
Price: $29.95

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