Pa. Appears Ready to Update Mine Safety Law After Years of Delays

January 3, 2008

Legislation to update Pennsylvania’s mining safety law is said to be nearing readiness — nearly two years after a state senator warned that foot-dragging could leave blood on the hands of Pennsylvania’s lawmakers.

If it passes, it will come after Congress updated the federal mine safety law and coal-mining giants West Virginia and Kentucky updated their state laws, spurred on by several high-profile mine accidents. It will also represent the first major update to Pennsylvania’s mine safety laws in the four decades since David L. Lawrence was governor.

Harrisburg’s often-grinding legislative pace aside, Republican and Democratic leaders both say the forthcoming bill is a good one, and badly needed for the state’s approximately 8,000 coal mine workers.

For the first time, state inspectors would be able to level fines at mines for safety infractions. Also for the first time, a board with representatives from the state’s mine safety office, the mine workers’ labor union and the ranks of mine owners would be able to write new regulations that would keep the law in step with the latest in mine-safety technology.

“This will be a big step up,” said Will Dando, chief of staff for Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Somerset.

Coal mining is of particular importance to Pennsylvania. The Keystone State had the most productive coal mine east of the Mississippi River last year, according to federal statistics. It is home to the third-most bituminous coal mines in the country and is the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer.

Dando and other Senate staff aides are giving the 230-plus-page legislation a final look before it is introduced. A vote is anticipated in mid-January in the Senate Energy and Environmental Resources Committee and Senate aides hope for final passage and a signature from Gov. Ed Rendell by summer.

They have reserved for it a symbolic bill number: Senate Bill 949, an echo of the “nine-for-nine” cry that former Gov. Mark Schweiker made famous during the 2002 rescue of nine miners at Quecreek Mine.

The bill would update safety regulations in Pennsylvania’s approximately 200 bituminous mines, while repealing current law that still contains references to pack animals and precautions for miners riding on conveyor belts.

Since 2003, the Rendell administration has taken some administrative steps to address safety — such as requiring newer mine maps and equipment and rejecting a mine permit application if regulators think unsafe conditions may exist.

But those are practices that can be changed by the next governor, and bigger safety steps must be made by law, state officials say.

Without an update, most provisions for cutting-edge mine safety will be left to Congress. Even then, state mine inspectors cannot flag a mine operator for a violation of federal law, Dando and others say. And if federal mine inspectors are stretched thin, then nothing can be done.

Still, predicting passage of any major legislation in Harrisburg is dicey.

For two years, legislators have tried to smooth over disagreements between state officials, mine workers and mine owners before moving a bill along.

“It’s gone on way too long,” said Patrick Henderson, a top aide to Sen. Mary Jo White, the Venango County Republican who chairs the Energy and Environmental Resources Committee.

When Kasunic introduced the Rendell administration’s version of a mine safety bill, it was October 2005. Three months later, he sat at a committee hearing on his bill — just days after the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia — and asked for quick action on new safety measures before another serious accident happened.

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