Miners unearth safety issues
By: Aoife McCarthy
Sep 3, 2007 05:15 PM EST
The ill-fated efforts to rescue trapped miners at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine last month — along with the harrowing television images of the tragedy — are prompting new hearings on Capitol Hill and a split between lobbyists for mine owners and workers.
The renewed congressional attention to mining issues could also cause some headaches for the Bush administration. Richard Stickler, the designated head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is among those who have been called to testify before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday.
Stickler’s nomination to head the agency was twice rejected when Republicans ran Congress, because of his close ties to the industry and a track record as a mine manager that included injury rates twice the national average. The wife of a miner killed in the Sago Mine collapse in West Virginia two years ago testified against his appointment. Despite that opposition, President Bush installed Stickler, a third-generation coal miner, through a recess appointment
. Now Stickler will face a Democratic-led Senate committee amid criticism that he mishandled the Utah disaster. Scheduled to testify alongside Stickler is Bob Murray, co-owner of the Utah mine, whose sometimes emotional and controversial media appearances added to the roller-coaster atmosphere that surrounded the failed attempt to save six miners trapped by an Aug. 6 cave-in. Less than two weeks later, three rescue workers were killed and six others injured when the mine collapsed again.
The United Mine Workers of America is pressing Congress to act aggressively to improve safety in the industry — and specifically to force the administration to fully implement new standards mandated by last year’s Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act. Among that legislation’s safety upgrades: extra air canisters, communication devices and tracking devices on miners. “We have an agency that is not living up to the intent and will of Congress,” said UMWA spokesman Phil Smith. “We would hope Congress recognizes that and takes action to correct it.”
The National Mining Association, a trade organization that includes more than 325 corporations involved in all aspects of the mining industry, is taking a more nuanced position. The association does not oppose any new safety precautions outright, but it expresses concern that any new legislation could slow production. The industry is still implementing the new provisions passed last year, officials say. “I would hope that Congress is interested in developing good outcomes, whether it is new legislation or a better understanding of what is going on in our business,” said Edward M. Green, an attorney with the law firm Crowell & Moring and a lobbyist for several mining companies.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the mining association, said the industry will remain open to changes. “If there are additions to the MINER Act that we are persuaded, and experts are persuaded, will improve mine safety, we will look at them. Our minds are not closed to this,” said Popovich. Smith and the labor organization, however, are likely to demand change.
“We want our industry to be as competitive as it possibly can be. We want it to be as productive as it possibly can be. We don’t want it to be competitive and productive at the price of our lives,” he said. The Appropriations hearing marks one of several investigations into the tragedy at the Utah mine. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has demanded a list of documents from the Labor Department about the mine and its operators. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the House Education and Labor Committee chairman, has asked Murray Energy to turn over 13 different categories of internal documents.