More than two years after 12 miners died at the Sago Mine disaster, underground coal miners across the country still don’t have adequate rescue equipment mandated by Congress, a new Government Accountability Office report said Tuesday.
Mine operators across the country have not all provided sufficient emergency air supplies or fail-safe wireless communications gear, according to the GAO report.
The U.S. Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has delayed in providing the coal industry with guidance to implement reforms required when the MINER Act was passed in June 2006, the GAO concluded.
MSHA officials in various districts offered conflicting compliance advice to mine operators, and top agency managers did properly oversee nationwide enforcement.
“Under the Bush administration, MSHA continues to fail to act, despite the many promises made to miners and their families on the lessons learned from mining tragedies over the last two years,” said House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, a California Democrat who asked for the GAO investigation.
The GAO report was released Tuesday, just two days before an expected Senate budget committee hearing on the Crandall Canyon disaster and other mine safety issues.
Over the last two months, separate reports by the Senate Labor Committee and the Labor Department Inspector General harshly criticized MSHA’s oversight at Crandall Canyon, where six miners and three rescuers died in August 2007.
In a written response to the GAO, MSHA officials said that they would issue new guidance in some areas, and set up a nationwide policy for proper review of mine operator compliance with MINER Act requirements.
But in an e-mail statement to the media, MSHA spokesman Matthew Faraci fired back at Miller, alleging that the congressman “did not want the facts of the report he commissioned to get in the way of his headline-grabbing remarks.”
Faraci pointed out that the GAO report noted that all underground coal mines “had implemented all or most components of their emergency response plans.”
In June 2006, Congress passed and President Bush signed the MINER Act after the Sago disaster and the deaths of two miners in the January 2006 Aracoma Mine fire and five more workers in the Kentucky Darby Mine disaster.
The law required mine operators to implement new emergency response plans — known as ERPs — for all underground coal mines nationwide. ERPs were to provide emergency air, escape lifelines, better communications and tracking of miner locations underground.
As Faraci said — and as Miller’s news release also pointed out — the GAO study noted that all mine operators had implemented most portions of their ERPs. But, the GAO study also outlined several serious criticisms of MSHA’s implementation of the MINER Act ERP requirements:
s Agency officials repeatedly revised the compliance guidance they gave to the coal industry, and issued a final and crucial piece of that guidance — governing emergency air supplies — six months after mine operators’ initial plans were due.
s Once compliance guidance was issued, it lacked specificity. MSHA district officials and miner operators were not sure what it meant, leading to further delays in implementation. Because guidance from local MSHA offices varied widely, it is “uncertain whether all miners will be adequately protected in the event of an accident.”
s Top MSHA managers have not reviewed local office enforcement records to determine what sorts of violations were cited where related to the MINER Act requirements. Nearly half of the underground mines in West Virginia were cited for such violations, while mines in other districts were cited at much lower rates.
GAO investigators noted that, as of January, three-quarters of the nation’s underground mines had not yet deployed the emergency air supplies mandated by the new law.
Only 4 percent of mines had received shipments of underground rescue chambers, and 20 percent were waiting for delivery of new self-contained self rescuers, or SCSRs, the GAO study found.
The GAO also noted that mines nationwide are not required to submit plans for new wireless communications gear until 2009. But that process may be hampered, the GAO said, by continued delays by MSHA in spelling out what sort of equipment would meet the legal requirement.
In West Virginia, state mine safety Director Ronald Wooten said that most mines are expected to have installed rescue chambers and wireless communications equipment by the end of the year.
While Congress did not pass the MINER Act until after the Darby disaster in May, Gov. Joe Manchin pushed through West Virginia’s bill on Jan. 23, four days after the Aracoma fire.
“West Virginia is in pretty good shape,” Wooten said Tuesday. “We’re kind of on the cutting edge of this thing.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
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