Federal Mine Agency Considers New Rules To Improve Safety

Delorice Bragg, whose husband died in a mine fire, watches as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III gives a pen to her son Ricky after signing a mine safety law.
Delorice Bragg, whose husband died in a mine fire, watches as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III gives a pen to her son Ricky after signing a mine safety law. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

After one of the deadliest months for coal mining in years, federal mine regulators last week began formally considering safety improvements to help miners survive underground fires and explosions. Among the proposals: mandatory caches of oxygen tanks and breathing masks inside every coal mine.

The idea may have struck some miners as familiar, because it was. A similar proposal was put forward by the same regulators six years ago, only to be scrapped by the Bush administration shortly after it took office. And the oxygen caches were not the only proposed safety improvement to be withdrawn.

In all, the Bush administration abandoned or delayed implementation of 18 proposed safety rules that were in the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's regulatory pipeline in early 2001, a review of agency records shows. At least two of the dropped proposals have now been resurrected in the aftermath of deadly accidents at the Sago and Alma mines in West Virginia.

In addition to the proposal to require caches of oxygen tanks, MSHA also is again considering expanding the number of mine rescue teams available to respond to disasters. A similar proposal to beef up rescue teams was scrapped by the agency in 2002, agency records show.

The cause of the two mine disasters has not been determined. But mine-safety experts have identified inadequate oxygen supplies and a slow rescue response as possible factors in the deaths of 12 miners in the Sago Mine explosion on Jan. 2. The Alma accident, which killed two miners, occurred when a coal conveyor belt caught fire. Four years earlier, in 2002, the Bush administration abandoned a proposal to explore ways to make the conveyor belts fire-resistant.

At the time, MSHA explained its decision by noting a decline in serious accidents caused by conveyor belts catching fire. "In the absence of a need for rulemaking, MSHA is withdrawing the proposed rule," the agency said in a July 2002 document justifying the withdrawal.

The mine safety agency in the past has acknowledged dropping Clinton-era safety proposals to pursue its own regulatory agenda, but an agency spokesman said yesterday that the commitment to safety has not diminished.

"MSHA's aggressive enforcement actions have increased against mine operators during this administration," agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said, "and this strong enforcement has led to record-low coal fatalities in 2005. Building on this strong record, MSHA continues to pursue ways to improve the safety of mines."

The agency's decisions are drawing renewed scrutiny in the wake of the 14 coal-mining deaths. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a frequent critic of MSHA, said the agency's actions had served the interest of coal companies while "placing miners in greater jeopardy."

"There is no question that they dropped the ball when it comes to protecting the safety of mineworkers," said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "What makes it so tragic is that it was deliberate. They didn't drop the regulations because they had better ideas. Their 'better idea' was that the regs shouldn't exist."

The committee's Democratic staff, in a report set for release today, cites the scrapping of proposed safety rules as a hallmark of an agency that has openly advocated a more cooperative approach to enforcement under President Bush. The report documents substantial cuts in the agency's workforce -- including a 9 percent reduction in the number of coal-mining enforcement personnel -- and sharp reductions in the number of criminal prosecutions and major fines. The report also notes the influx of former mining industry executives to MSHA's management and advisory boards during the Bush administration. Of the four members of the agency's Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission -- a panel that settles disputes involving the federal Mine Act -- three are former top executives of mining companies or trade associations.

MSHA "has rolled back proposed safety and health regulations, while implementing industry-favored changes," a draft of the report states.

MSHA contends that the Bush administration has increased overall spending on mine safety in the past five years. While the number of MSHA jobs has declined, most of the cuts were in the administrative ranks, allowing the agency to put more of its resources in enforcement, officials said.

Whether any of the dropped regulations would have saved the lives of Sago or Alma miners is impossible to say. In the Sago disaster, investigators believe that all but one of the 12 victims survived the initial explosion, only to succumb later to rising levels of poisonous carbon monoxide in the portion of the mine where they were trapped.

Under long-standing safety rules, each miner was equipped with a "self-contained self-rescuer" device, essentially a breathing apparatus and a tank containing an hour's worth of oxygen. Under a proposed rule first put forward in 1999, MSHA pushed for additional safety equipment, including emergency caches of oxygen to be placed at intervals throughout a mine. Similar caches and "safe rooms" may have helped 72 miners who were rescued yesterday after being trapped for 30 hours inside a potash mine in western Canada.

The idea of special caches was formally abandoned by MSHA in September 2001. The agency's explanation: "MSHA is withdrawing this entry from the agenda in the light of resource constraints and changing safety and health regulatory priorities."

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