Kennedy: tougher mine-safety efforts needed
October 2, 2007
WASHINGTON — With 24 deaths so far this year in the nation’s coal mines, federal safety enforcement still needs improvement, a top Senate Democrat said today.
“Ineffective enforcement, outdated technology and inadequate safety standards are the heart of the problem,” Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said at a coal-mine safety hearing.
Enforcement and safety efforts by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration have come under renewed focus in Congress since Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine disaster in August, when six miners were trapped and presumed lost and three rescue workers were later killed trying to save them.
Kennedy was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who last year wrote and passed new mine-safety legislation in answer to the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 accident and accidents at West Virginia’s Sago and Alma mines. A total of 19 miners died in those accidents, five of them at Darby.
While that legislation is making a difference, Kennedy said, “Today we find ourselves asking new questions about whether this did enough to make mining safe.”
Congress is considering additional safety legislation this year.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., cautioned that not every mine accident requires legislation.“So we must wait until all the facts are in before we determine what course to take,” he said.
Kennedy acknowledged that the Utah accident is still under investigation and that it’s too early to expect answers as to what went wrong.
But, Kennedy said, “at Crandall Canyon … MSHA apparently missed the warning flags about serious safety problems.”
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s administrator for coal mine safety and health, said his agency was never notified about a “mountain bump” in March, a catastrophic failure of part of the mine that resulted in the suspension of mining in one section.
His agency approved new mining in another section 900 feet away in June, less than two months before the accident.
But Kennedy said other information available to MSHA would have shown that the Utah operation was dangerous.
“Why didn’t MSHA recognize the problem?” Kennedy asked.
Said Stricklin: “I think that’s something the investigation teams are going to have to come up with.”
MSHA currently has stopped all so-called retreat mining west of the Mississippi River to review operators’ plans. Retreat mining involves removing pillars of coal as miners complete operations.
Stricklin told the panel that “retreat mining can be done safely.” About 48 percent of the 223 active underground coal mines conduct retreat mining, he said. The practice is common in Kentucky.
Some family members of the Utah victims were in the audience for the hearing, conducted by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which Kennedy is chairman. The committee did not vote on legislation.
Dennis O’Dell, the administrator for health and safety of the United Mine Workers union, called the Utah accident a “man-made disaster” that could have been avoided.