Pa. Senate Passes Long-Awaited Mine Safety Measure

February 13, 2008

The first major rewrite of Pennsylvania’s 1961 mine safety law received unanimous approval from the state Senate this week, but the mine workers union wants the House to make additions to it.

Under the current draft, state inspectors for the first time would be able to impose fines for safety infractions on mine owners, instead of just supervisors. Also, it would establish a seven-member safety board which, among other things, would be tasked with keeping the law in step with advances in mine safety technology and practices.

For several years, legislators, state officials and representatives from the union and mining companies have worked to update the decades-old state law governing safety in approximately 200 bituminous mines. But the sides have spent much of the time in disagreement.

Eventually, the fear that another mine accident would happen while the sides fought spurred compromises, said one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango.

No one, she said, “wanted to ever be in the position of facing a television camera with anxious relatives behind them and trapped miners below ground saying they that they had not done everything they could humanly do that was possible to move forward the issue of mine safety.”

Accidents at Sago Mine in West Virginia in 2006 and Quecreek Mine in Somerset in 2002 have already prompted action in Congress and other major mining states to address safety issues. Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth-largest coal-mining state.

Members of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, including mine owners Consol Energy and Foundation Coal, are likely to vote soon to support the bill, said association president George Ellis.

The United Mine Workers union has not declared a position on the bill, and a spokesman, Phil Smith, said the bill leaves out some issues that are important to it.

Those issues involve safety checks before miners enter the mine, track distance from the face of the mine and whether a union member who works at the mine can be paid while accompanying a mine inspector, Senate aides said.

Smith said the union is continuing to talk to House members and Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration in an effort to resolve the issues.

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 were taken to avoid igniting methane fumes.

The legislation also would require that mine operators notify state regulators within 15 minutes of an accident and get state approval for plans to rescue anyone trapped in the mine or reopen the mine.

It also would mandate precautions to prevent an accidental breech of a flooded mine — as happened at Quecreek — and require a map repository to provide public access to all maps of existing and abandoned mines.

At Quecreek, nine miners were rescued after they were trapped for three days in the summer of 2002.

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