Entry for January 25, 2006

The above AP photo is Senator Harkin at federal hearings on Monday.  But unwilling to wait for the federal government to protect his state’s miners, West Virginia Governor Manchin has stepped up to the plate and submitted legislation to the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, which, in an unusual move, suspended their rules and passed the bill  in a single day, also on Monday.

SB247 will require  companies to notify state officials quickly in case of an accident, electronically track miners underground and place reserve portable air supplies throughout mines. The bill creates a Mine and Industrial Accident Rapid Response System to be maintained by the state Division of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. Together, the two agencies will operate a 24-7 communications center to coordinate response and dispatch rescue teams to mine emergencies. Under the bill, coal operators would face a $100,000 fine if they do not contact emergency officials within 15 minutes of an accident.

Things are going to change and they’re going to change rapidly. …The technology is there…These are not a great cost.

Meanwhile in Washington,  the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Labor, Heath Human Services and Education held a hearing January 23.  Said West Virginia Senator Byrd, when he requested the hearing:

The families of the Sago miners deserve to know what happened in that mine,” Byrd said. “Just as importantly, miners and their families across this country want to know that steps are being taken to prevent others from ever experiencing such pain.

He added,

The investigation at the Upshur County mine will tell us what caused that deadly explosion. But one conclusion is already evident: it’s time for the decisions affecting America’s miners to be made with their best interests at heart. That should be the legacy of the Sago miners.

In Congress, there are tough questions to be asked of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Is enforcement of coal mining regulations tough enough? Are the regulations on the books today current enough to handle the challenges posed by 21st century coal mining? Are mine hazards being minimized? These and other issues demand scrutiny, and the miners’ families deserve the answers.

One federal witness,  Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Dye, managed to tick off Arlen Spector who was chairing the hearing.  Writing for the New York Times in an article “Senators Have Strong Words for Mine Safety Officials ” the next day, Ian Irbina noted that about midway through the two-hour hearing, Mr. Dye said he had other matters to attend to and had to leave.

Senator Specter responded with frustration: “I can understand your pressing other business. It may well be that some of the senators here have pressing matters, too. We don’t think we are imposing too much to keep you here for another hour.”

After Mr. Specter added, “That’s the committee’s request, but you’re not under subpoena,” Mr. Dye got up and walked out.

“I can’t recollect it ever happening before,” Mr. Specter said of the departure. “We’ll find a way to take appropriate note of it.”

Other federal witnesses were Deputy Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Bob Friend, Coal Mine Safety and Health Administrator Ray McKinney and Mine Safety and Health Associate Solicitor, Edward Claire. Industry witnesses will be International Coal Group (ICG) President and CEO Ben Hatfield, West Virginia Coal Association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton and National Mining Association Vice President for Safety and Health Bruce Watzman. West Virginia witness will be investigation leader Davitt McAteer. Labor witness will be United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts. [20]

The Republican members of the subcommittee in addition to Specter are  Cochran (MS), Judd Gregg (NH), Larry Craig (ID), Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), Ted Stevens (AK), Mike DeWine (OH) and Richard Shelby (AL). The Democratic members are Tom Harkin (Ranking Member) (IA), Daniel Inouye (HI), Harry Reid (NV), Senator Herb Kohl (WI), Patty Murray (WA), Mary Landrieu (LA), Richard Durbin (IL).

The written versions of testimony from the January 23 hearing were posted on the Appropriations Committee website.

Here’s some supplemental information I also added at Wikipedia:

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wrote Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee chairman Mike Enzi(R-WY) and ranking Democrat, Edward M. Kennedy (MA) asking for a hearing. Also signing the letter were Byrd and other coal state senators Rick Santorum (R-PA), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Barack Obama (D-IL), Jim Bunning (R-KY), Ken Salazar (D-CO), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Richard Lugar (R-IN). In a press release about the letter, Rockefeller stated,

“We need to know why the administration thinks that it can carry out a policy where it is committing fewer and fewer resources to meet an industry that has more and more needs.

“We need congressional hearings not only so that we can determine what happened at Sago, but, more broadly, about the state of mine safety across West Virginia and across the country.” [22]

That date, Enzi issued a press release found on the committee’s website that he was working with Kenneday to hold an oversight hearing in early March into safety procedures and enforcement measures related to the disaster. He also would hold a confirmation hearing January 31, 2006 for Bush’s nominee to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Richard Stickler. He announced he had written a January 5, 2006 letter to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao requesting “regular and comprehensive briefings on the progress and preliminary findings” of the MSHA investigation. and enforcement efforts at the Sago mine. 

On January 4, 2006, Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Major Owens (D-NY) wrote a letter posted on Miller’s website to House Education and Workforce Committee: Workforce Protections Subcommittee government investigation Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) asking for a hearing, saying Congress had abdicated its oversight responsibilities on worker safety issues, while the Bush administration filled worker safety agencies with industry insiders. [23]

On January 5, 2006, Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) wrote Chairman Boehner requesting him to schedule a hearing at the earliest possible date and posted the letter on her congressional website. [24]

The chairman, along with subcommitte Charlie Norwood (R-GA) issued a statement posted on the committee’s website, “We expect MSHA to produce a thorough account of the events that occurred before, during, and after this tragedy, and the Committee will closely monitor this investigation to ensure its timely completion. Following a full accounting of the facts, the Committee will examine the results of the investigation and determine what appropriate steps may be necessary to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again.” [25]

 

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