‘MINER’ Act passed by US Congress

Attorneys Jackson Kelly PLLC has reported furthe on the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, known as the ‘MINER’ Act, was approved by the House of Representatives in a 381-37 vote on June 7, 2006. Before being sent to the House, the bill was unanimously approved by the Senate on May 24, 2006. As with the approval of the bill in the Senate, customary procedures were suspended in order to expeditiously pass the bill in the House.

This legislation is now being sent to the White House for the President’s signature, which Jackson Kelly expects to happen soon. “This legislation will be the first significant change to the federal mine safety and health statute in 30 years.” To date, 30 miners have died in underground US coal mining accidents alone. This is a substantial increase from the 22 fatalities that occurred in the entire coal mining industry in all of 2005.

“While the bill that was passed by Congress had a great deal of bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate, it was not without its detractors,” Jackson Kelly reports. “This bill was originally expected to be voted on by the House before the Memorial Day recess. However, opposition to the bill in its current form was voiced by Representative George Miller (D-Calif.). Miller advocated amendments to the bill that would require a more immediate implementation of communication and tracking devices and mandatory two-day air supplies for each miner. This opposition resulted in the delay of the bill’s passing.

Other legislators may have understood Miller’s desire to strengthen the bill as written, but the consensus felt it was more important to eliminate any delay in enacting this new legislation. Therefore, the House vote was taken on the bill in the exact form as it was passed by the Senate. By not amending the bill, the House avoided a need to reconcile two bills before presenting a single piece of legislation to the President. At least one member of Congress has stated his belief that this bill, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction for miner safety. The United Mine Workers of America, the National Mining Association, and the AFL-CIO have all expressed support for the bill.

As mentioned in previous commentary from Jackson Kelly on the Senate bill, the bill primarily addresses specific safety issues in underground coal mines by amending many aspects of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and adds several new provisions, some of which are applicable to all mines. This matter is so important that it is worth repeating the following brief summary of some of the key provisions that will take effect should the legislation be signed into law by President Bush as expected.
Underground Coal Mines
• Each underground coal mine would be required to develop and continuously update a written accident response plan, which is subject to MSHA review and approval every six months
• Within three years of enactment of the Act, each underground coal mine shall have wireless communication and electronic tracking systems to ensure communication with individuals who may be trapped underground
• Each underground coal mine would need to have available, in varying combinations of composition depending on mine size, two experienced mine rescue teams familiar with the mine and capable of responding within an hour
• Caches of self-rescuers providing not less than two hours of breathable air per miner would be required to be kept in underground coal mine escapeways, at distances no farther apart than the average miner can walk in 30 minutes
• The Secretary of Labor is required to increase the current 20 psi standard set forth in 30 C.F.R. § 75.335(a)(2) related to the sealing of abandoned areas in underground coal mines.
All Mines
• Within 15 minutes of realizing an incident/accident has occurred, mine operators would have to notify MSHA of any accident or incident that results in death or injury or entrapment that poses a reasonable risk of death. A violation of the time limit on reporting is subject to a penalty between $5,000 and $60,000
• Criminal penalties could be proposed of up to $250,000 for a first offense and $500,000 for a second offense
• The Act establishes a minimum penalty of $2,000 for violations issued under § 104(d)(1) and a minimum penalty of $4,000 for violations issued under § 104(d)(2)
• Civil penalties for a “flagrant” violation could be proposed in amounts up to $220,000. The bill defines flagrant as “a reckless or repeated failure to make reasonable efforts to eliminate a known violation of a mandatory health or safety standard that substantially and proximately caused, or reasonably could have been expected to cause, death or serious bodily injury”
• MSHA would have authority to close mines for failure to pay penalties
General Provisions
• An Office of Mine Safety and Health within NIOSH would be established to enhance development of new mine safety technology
• A scholarship program would be established for those interested in pursuing education in mining and mining-related fields, as well as MSHA inspectors
• A mine safety grants program would be established to provide funding for education and training to better identify and avoid unsafe working conditions.