Mining Tragedies Spur Analysis in Pennsylvania
NEIL CONAN host:
In West Virginia yesterday, the state legislator passed a bill that would tighten the state's mining safety laws. It was a hurried response to mining tragedies that took the lives of 14 West Virginians in the last month. The disasters have also amped-up pressure in neighboring Pennsylvania, another mining state. Pennsylvania has not had a major update to its mining laws in more than 40 years. That may change next week. To tell us more, we're joined now by Amy Worden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She's with us by phone from Harrisburg, the state capital. Nice of you to be with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. AMY WORDEN (Reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer): Hi, Neil. Thank you.
CONAN: Why hasn't Pennsylvania updated its mining laws in 40 years? There was Cue Creek just a couple of years ago.
Ms. WORDEN: Well, everybody realized that the mining laws were, they were out of date, but it took a near disaster at Cue Creek mine in 2002 to sort of put it on people's radar screens. Well, like Sago, Cue Creek had a series of investigations that came after it. There was a federal commission formed, a state commission formed. There was an inspector general. There was a grand jury. So it took about a year or so for all of the various investigative bodies to come up with their conclusions and their reports and then another almost three years beyond that before we finally actually had a piece of legislation for the state general assembly to consider.
CONAN: And as I understand it, one of the problems with the old laws, well, I gather they refer to what you should do with your mules, might be a little out of date there.
Ms. WORDEN: Yes, the original mining law in Pennsylvania dates to the late 19th century, back when close to a million people were employed in coal mines in Pennsylvania, and yes, indeed, there are still laws on the books that deal with how to, safety procedures involving mules and horses who carted the coal in the mines. So, yes, considerably out of date.
CONAN: And even some of the penalties provided for problems seem to be out of date under the old laws. For example, Cue Creek, somehow the penalty didn't seem to fit the crime.
Ms. WORDEN: Right. Well, actually the final conclusion of the grand jury was it was an accident really and not negligence in that case. It all boiled down to a map. The map that was used at Cue, by the mining company at Cue Creek was out of date. The up-to-date most current map of that area in Somerset County that was being mined turned up after the accident in a museum of all things, so these poor miners were working without a map. They had no idea that they were going into an abandoned mine that had flooded and were about to create this situation.
So ultimately, there were fines imposed, but they were by the, imposed by the federal government, not by the state. The state does not have the power to fine mining companies and mine operators, and that is what is part of this critical new legislation.
CONAN: We all know now at the Sago mine that most of those miners died as they tried to protect themselves, go to a refuge behind a fabric curtain that they set up in a room at the bottom of the shaft. Regrettably, it did not work. I understand there's a proposal in the works there in Pennsylvania that would require Pennsylvania mines to provide what are called refuge rooms or safe rooms.
Ms. WORDEN: Right. Senator Richard Cusik from the southwestern part of the state, the heart of the coal mining region, the tuminous coal mining region in Pennsylvania, who is the sponsor of this update to the mine safety bill, is also working on a bill now, it has not yet been introduced, that would create a type of safe room, modeled after what's used in metal mines in the country and around the world today, but there are some problems with that because these safe boxes that are used elsewhere, these self-contained units that would provide oxygen and have food and water in them that miners could retreat to in the case of an accident, need high clearance, need eight feet or so, and in coal mines, the clearance is generally around three or four feet. So there would have to be some sort of modification made in Pennsylvania to adjust for the, you know, the low height clearance.
CONAN: I read that there's even a company in South Africa that's trying to market, or will soon market, an inflatable safe room.
Ms. WORDEN: Yes, I had heard that too. It's a little early right now. This bill has not yet been drafted. The legislators are still looking into doing the research and trying to find out what might work in Pennsylvania, but that's what they ultimately would like to do, figure out a way to create a room that, you know, that miners could retreat to safely.
CONAN: Amy Worden, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Ms. WORDEN: Thank you, Neil.
CONAN: Amy Worden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She joined us by phone from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.