MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining agency: Increase top fine

Published by MAC on 2006-01-19

Mining agency: Increase top fine

by Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

19th January 2006

Labor leaders and regulators are pushing for the nation's first mine-safety reforms in nearly 30 years and hope to nearly quadruple the maximum fine for serious violations in the wake of this month's mine disaster in West Virginia, miners and safety experts said Wednesday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration wants the authority to impose $220,000 fines, up from the present maximum of $60,000. MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said the larger fines would "raise the ante for mine operators to abide by the law."

The administration has sought the higher fines in the past three years but got little support in Congress. Rep. Don Sherwood, a Republican from a coal-mining region in Pennsylvania, told Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in March that high fines "would put most of my people out of business."

The death of 12 miners at the Sago Mine this month will build support for the $220,000 fines, said Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety adviser in the Clinton administration. Congress will hold its first hearing Monday on mining safety.

Nine senators - six Democrats and three Republicans from coal-producing states - have called for a series of hearings on mine training, safety, and technology. The senators said in a Jan. 10 letter requesting the hearings that they want to enact "strong, bipartisan mine-safety legislation" this year. "The miners who died at Sago deserve no less."

Oppegard said changing the law to allow higher fines would appeal to lawmakers looking to strengthen mine safety without enacting new standards.

More hearings are set for Jan. 31 and in March.

The United Mine Workers will testify on Monday and call for safety improvements to help trapped miners, said Dennis O'Dell, the union's head of safety and health. The union wants the government to require:

. Rugged communications equipment that can withstand an explosion.
. Rescue teams stationed at every mine.
. Breathing devices that will give miners hours of extra oxygen.

Sago miners lost all contact with the surface after an unexplained explosion Jan. 2. Wireless radios might have helped save some miners, said Ben Hatfield, CEO of Sago owner International Coal Group. He said the coal industry has been slow to adopt the technology.

Some mines provide extra breathing equipment to supplement portable air supplies that miners carry. Those devices generate oxygen for one hour - an insufficient duration, O'Dell said.

"If it takes me eight hours to get out of a mine, I should have eight hours of oxygen," O'Dell said.

Tim Biddle, a lawyer who represents mining companies, said that adding breathing equipment is "reasonable." But he said "there are some special problems with wireless communications underground."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a long time mine-safety advocate, echoed the union's concerns and said he supports higher fines. He said regulators should focus on increasing penalties "before there is a tragic accident."

The original mine-safety law was enacted in 1969 after 78 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion. The last major changes occurred in 1977, several years after a fire killed 91 miners in Idaho.

"Every law," O'Dell said, "has been written by the blood of miners."

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