Long-Sought Pennsylvania Mine Safety Bill Hits New Snags

April 10, 2008

A new disagreement has erupted over efforts to overhaul Pennsylvania’s 1961 mine safety law, threatening a compromise forged more than five years after the rescue of nine miners in western Pennsylvania spurred a push for tougher regulations.

The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously in February, was amended Tuesday by a House committee to add provisions that would set new requirements for mine-safety checks before shifts begin, new certification standards for mine foremen, examiners and electricians and more.

The amendment passed 17-12 in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee with every Democrat supporting it. The committee then voted 23-6 to send the bill to the full House.

The changes are championed by the mine workers union, but opposed by the mining companies.

If the bill is approved by the full House with Tuesday’s changes, it appears headed for more debate in the Senate.

Sen. Mary Jo White, the Venango County Republican who chairs the chamber’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, will encourage senators to reject or modify the House’s amendment, a statement from her office said.

The House’s amendment violated an agreement to negotiate any changes with representatives from the Senate, the union and the mining companies, White said. The provisions inserted into the bill are best dealt with in labor contract negotiations, not legislation, her statement said.

But the chairman of the House committee that made the changes stood by them.

“Today’s changes make safety the priority and make good legislation better legislation,” Rep. Bud George, D-Clearfield, said in a statement.

Officials from the United Mine Workers of America say the provisions in the amendment will improve the safety of workers in Pennsylvania’s approximately 200 bituminous mines.

But the Pennsylvania Coal Association, which represents major mine owners like Consol Energy and Foundation Coal, said the provisions involve labor matters, not 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.

The major safety provisions in the Pennsylvania bill would allow state inspectors to impose fines for safety infractions on mine owners, instead of just supervisors. To keep the law in step with advances in mine safety technology and practices, it would establish a seven-member safety board to guide regulatory changes.

It also would mandate precautions to prevent an accidental breech of a flooded mine _ as happened at Quecreek, where nine miners were trapped for nearly 77 hours before being rescued.

The bill also would require a map repository to provide public access to all maps of existing and abandoned mines.

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