Pa. Senate Panel Advances Long-Delayed Mine Safety Measure

January 17, 2008

A bill that would install a slew of safety measures into Pennsylvania’s long-outdated law protecting coal miners received unanimous approval from a state Senate committee this week.

The bill, which is headed for a floor vote in the full Senate in two or three weeks, has received the support of Gov. Ed Rendell and House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese. Tuesday’s vote by the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, although just the first of several steps the bill must take before becoming law, is considered substantial progress after the legislation spent more than two years bogged down in disagreements.

In the meantime, Congress updated the federal mining law and other major mining states followed suit in their laws, spurred by accidents like the one at Sago Mine in West Virginia. In 2002, nine miners were rescued after they were trapped for three days in Quecreek Mine in Somerset.

“I am hopeful that this legislation, once enacted, will help us prevent future accidents like the ones that took place at Quecreek and Sago,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Fayette, said in a statement after the vote.

A United Mine Workers of America spokesman, Phil Smith, would not say whether the union supports the bill. The union will be meeting Thursday to discuss the measure, he said.

George Ellis, the president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, which represents mine owners including Consol Energy and Foundation Coal, said he believes his members will support it after they meet to discuss it.

The association didn’t get what it wanted most _ for the bill to adopt most federal regulations, instead of requiring mine owners to adhere to a set of state regulations that often differ from federal standards, Ellis said. Instead, what emerged from negotiations is a guarantee that mine owners will have a voice on a new safety board that would write regulations enabling the state’s mining law to keep pace with advances in mine safety practices.

“You go to a negotiation, you’ve got to be willing to give up things to get things,” Ellis said.

The bill would update safety regulations in Pennsylvania’s approximately 200 bituminous mines, while repealing current law that dates to 1961 and still contains references to pack animals and precautions for miners riding on conveyor belts. Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer and was home to the most productive coal mine east of the Mississippi River in 2006.

Under the bill, state inspectors for the first time would be able to impose fines for safety infractions on mine owners, instead of supervisors. Also, the bill would establish the seven-member safety board which, among other things, would develop regulations for emergency underground shelters that can provide up to 48 hours of life support.

In case of an accident, mine operators would be required to notify state regulators within 15 minutes and get state approval for plans to rescue anyone trapped in the mine or reopen the mine. If the mine’s ventilation fans stop blowing, the bill would allow a mine operator to use mechanical equipment to transport miners out, if proper precautions are taken to avoid igniting methane fumes.

To try to correct some safety gaps soon after the 2002 Quecreek accident, Rendell ordered some administrative changes in mining regulations. One change mandated a bigger distance between a planned mine and an abandoned mine to protect against an accidental breech of a flooded mine, as happened at Quecreek. That change would become law under the bill, which would also require state regulators to establish a map repository to provide public access to all maps of existing and abandoned mines.

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