White House to Revisit Mine Equipment Safety; Head of Agency Quits

January 23, 2006

The Bush administration is reviewing safety equipment used in the nation’s mines after previously scrapping similar initiatives started by the Clinton administration.

The agency that oversees coal mine safety is seeking public input on how to better supply miners and rescuers with equipment such as breathing apparatus and communications devices, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

In recent years, the Mine Safety and Health Administration pulled Clinton-era initiatives examining safety equipment and mine rescue operations off its regulatory agenda, a semiannual document that outlines what agencies are working on.

Key among the items withdrawn were those dealing with oxygen packs that miners carry and the ability of mine rescue teams do their jobs.

Such issues will be re-examined, according to the documents, which noted that the Jan. 2 Sago Mine accident in Tallmansville, W.Va., “underscored the vital role that mine rescue operations play in response to catastrophic mine incidents.”

In withdrawing the items during its first term, the Bush administration cited changing priorities and resource concerns. Miners’ advocates said the action stopped potentially important safety rules from coming about.

“Work was in progress to implement some of these protections,” Joe Main, who recently retired as the top safety expert at the United Mine Workers union, said Saturday.

Main welcomed the new study but said it fell short. He said the agency should impose new emergency rules that could go into effect quickly, and he said Congress ought to pass legislation establishing new safety standards as it did following the 1968 mine explosion in Farmington, W.Va., that killed 78 miners.

“Study all you want,” Main said. “That’s good. That’s healthy, but don’t preclude action with study.”

One of the items withdrawn called for a review of oxygen units miners are required to wear or keep within 25 feet of their work area.

Main said the goal was to eliminate defects and improve inspections of the air packs and ensure that the machines were actually providing the one hour’s worth of air that is required. The union also wanted extra units stored in the mines. The review will examine those issues.

The Sago mine explosion led to the deaths of 12 miners. Officials said one victim apparently was killed by the blast itself, and the others were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide.

Officials also said there was evidence most of the miners used their one-hour air packs, yet the ordeal lasted more than 40 hours.

Jeffery Kravitz, a safety specialist at the Mine Safety and Health Administration who coordinates the agency’s rescue teams, said the federal government hasn’t been ignoring the issue.

Kravitz said the Labor Department agency, along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has held numerous workshops to identify what technology might be available or developed to provide miners with longer-lasting oxygen packs that are light enough to wear.

Another item the Clinton administration had been reviewing but which was withdrawn during President Bush’s first term involved the deployment of mine rescue teams.

Main said the administration was looking at ways to boost the number of teams available and in proximity to the mines. Mine operators rely on teams that are up to two hours away, which union officials say is too far.

Ellen Smith, owner of Mine Safety and Health News, a newsletter, said miners’ representatives and industry officials disagreed over what should be required of mine operators when it comes to rescue teams.

“Nothing was being accomplished, but I don’t think that’s a good reason for giving up,” Smith said of the decision to pull the issue from the regulatory agenda.

Kravitz said his agency in recent years expanded national contests it holds to train and attract new mine rescue teams.

In its request for public input, the agency also is seeking information on technology that might help rescuers communicate with miners such as text messaging devices. The agency also is looking into whether rescue chambers could be built as safe havens inside mines.

The federal government isn’t alone in conducting a review.

The National Mining Association, an industry trade group, plans to form its own commission to look at mine safety and examine technology that could be useful, spokeswoman Carol Raulston said.

“I think the industry has literally been shaken by this month’s events,” Raulston said. “There was a broad agreement that we really needed to focus efforts, particularly looking at technology and training.”

Meanwhile, the Bush administration official in charge of safety in the nation’s mines is leaving his job.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Dave Lauriski said last Friday he plans to leave the agency by the end of this week. He said he would work within the mining industry from his home in Colorado but declined to be more specific about his plans.

A replacement has not been named.

Lauriski, a former industry executive, had a contentious relationship with the United Mine Workers of America, which represents coal miners. UMWA spokesman Doug Gibson expressed “relief” Friday that Lauriski was stepping down.

Perhaps the biggest dispute between the union and the agency came over the government proposal to allow coal operators to equip miners with special respirators when operators were having difficulty controlling dust levels.

Lauriski said his proudest moment at the agency came two years ago when nine Pennsylvania miners were pulled to safety after being trapped underground for three days following an accident.

“I watched people from all walks of life never lose hope, never lose their faith,” Lauriski said. “We returned those folks to their families at the end of that long ordeal.”

He said safety in the nation’s mines has improved under his watch. He noted that there were 88 mine deaths nationwide in fiscal 2000, compared with 48 in fiscal year 2004, which runs from the beginning of October through the end of September.

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