Underground refuges for trapped miners and lower exposure limits aimed at reversing a spike in black lung disease are key provisions in a second wave of mining reforms Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., steered through committee approval Wednesday.

Rahall said the approval by the House Committee on Education and Labor of a bill he helped craft addresses reforms not covered by last year’s MINER Act, one that was inspired largely by the January 2006 deaths of a dozen workers trapped and killed underground in the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

Only one member of that work crew survived, and the tragedy led Gov. Joe Manchin to push legislation through passage in the Legislature in a single day, calling for quicker and more thorough responses to industrial accidents.

“Last year, upon passage of the MINER Act, I made clear my belief that much more needed to be done to shore up our nation’s failing mine safety system,” Rahall said.

“Certainly, the events of this year bear out that belief and lend credence to the effort to pass legislation that builds upon the advances of MINER.”

Actually, the committee-approved bill is a combination of two measures Rahall co-sponsored with the panel’s chairman, Rep. George Miller, R-Calif., one known as a supplemental, the other as an enhancement.

“This bill contains a number of provisions that are sure to generate debate,” Rahall said.

“I appreciate that there are differences of opinion, but as long as we are talking about mine safety, we are keeping this national need in the public arena and that, in itself, is an improvement over so many years of neglect.”

By the middle of next year, the bill would require that operators devise refuges similar to those in use in foreign countries for miners trapped underground.

The proposal is an attempt to strengthen and clarify the role of the Mine Safety and Health Administration in overseeing safety issues in the nation’s mines.

Another feature compels MSHA to review plans with computer simulations to guard against problems in so-called retreat mining, a method that was used at the Crandall Canyon operation in Utah where six miners were killed and three rescue workers perished while attempting to reach them.

Rahall said his bill also would demand an independent review of disasters, an idea suggested by families of victims, and a study by the National Academy of Sciences on the effects of lightning, blamed by some for the explosion that rumbled through the Sago Mine.

Seven miners have died this year in West Virginia. Latest to die was Charles Jason Keeney, last weekend in an accident in Boone County. Rahall said his employer, Long Branch Energy’s Mine No. 23, hadn’t been given one quarterly inspection by MSHA this year.

The bill exiting the House committee would allow recruitment of more, qualified inspectors and bring retirees back into duty as contractors without losing any retirement benefits.

“We must keep in mind that no amount of legislating can solve the problems that have been created by years of neglectful policy-making and under-funding at MSHA,” Rahall said.

“This is a dysfunctional agency that grew worse in the absence of congressional vigilance. I commend Congressman Miller for making oversight of MSHA a priority when he assumed the chairmanship of the Committee on Education and Labor.”

— E-mail:

mannix@register-herald.com

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