Mine Owners, Unions Compromise on Long-Sought Pennsylvania Safety Bill

July 3, 2008

Legislation to improve safety in Pennsylvania’s approximately 200 bituminous coal mines was poised to become law after a marathon negotiation yielded a compromise bill endorsed Monday by both the coal companies and mine workers union.

The state Senate unanimously approved the bill and it was headed to the House, where leaders of the Democratic majority have pledged to pass it this week. It is the first major rewrite of the state’s mining law in nearly 50 years.

The 250-page bill was in the making since 2002, when nine miners were rescued from the flooded Quecreek Mine in western Pennsylvania. Even the number, Senate Bill 949, is an echo of the “nine-for-nine” cry that former Gov. Mark Schweiker made famous during the rescue.

“This is our thank you to the men and women who toil beneath the ground in the mines of Pennsylvania,” Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Venango, a key negotiator on the bill, said on the Senate floor. “This is the very best we can do to give them a safe working environment and to protect them and to help their families have them come home safely from work every day.”

The bill’s expected passage comes after Congress updated the federal mine safety law and after major coal-mining states West Virginia and Kentucky updated their laws — spurred by several high-profile mine accidents. Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer.

After the 2002 accident at Quecreek, Pennsylvania’s legislation took three years to develop because it encompassed recommendations made by federal and state commissions and a grand jury panel. It took three more years to resolve disagreements among state mining officials, labor unions and coal companies.

The remaining hang-ups received personal attention from Gov. Ed Rendell last week, when he sat for several hours Thursday with legislators, union negotiators and coal company executives to resolve the remaining disagreements. Final details were hammered out Friday.

“What miners do is dangerous … and they deserve our protection,” Rendell told reporters.

A union spokesman, Phil Smith, urged both the House and Senate to pass the bill.

Under the measure, state inspectors for the first time could impose fines for safety infractions on mine owners, instead of just supervisors. The bill also 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.

“We don’t have to come to the Legislature every time there was an issue we didn’t envision … or there was an advance in technology,” said George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, which represents mining giants like Consol Energy and Foundation Coal.

The measure would mandate precautions to prevent an accidental breech of a flooded mine — as happened at Quecreek — and require a repository to provide public access to all maps of existing and abandoned mines. The bill also modernizes provisions for the use of electrical equipment and diesel vehicles underground.

The Senate approved an earlier version of the bill in February but the mine workers union opposed it, saying it lacked provisions to more quickly evacuate injured miners and a guarantee that a paid miner could accompany inspectors on their rounds. In April, the House passed a version that addressed union concerns, but drew opposition from the coal companies.

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