Lawmakers Blast Mining Industry Safety Standards

In the wake of recent, high-profile West Virginia mine disasters, House members grill mining officials about a lack of potentially lifesaving equipment for workers underground. Federal authorities draw criticism for not collecting fines from companies with safety violations.

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On Capitol Hill today lawmakers continued to hammer away at the nation's Mine Safety Agency. 21 coal miners have been killed in accidents so far this year. Legislators wanted to know why the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, has allowed coal operators to run up huge fines for safety violations without punishment. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, reporting:

Coal companies owe the government more than $11 million in unpaid fines at the end of last year. And since 2003, MSHA has not forwarded any delinquent cases for collection to the Treasury Department, as it's supposed to. At today's hearing, Senator Hillary Clinton, the New York Democrat, wanted to know if the reason for the two-year delay was a computer glitch, as reported in today's New York Times. This is what David Dye, MSHA's acting director, had to say.

Mr. DAVID DYE (Acting Director, MSHA): The, it's been a nightmare, quite frankly. We changed over to the new computer system. We were not able to do that for a while, as we, as we developed our new database. But since, I think, May of 2005, the new data, the new computer system that they've been using at Treasury has not been able to receive those either.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Well, can you walk them across the street?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DYE: I wish we could, believe me, I wish we could.

Senator CLINTON: Well, I don't see any reason why you can't. I mean...

(Soundbite of applause)

LANGFITT: In the wake of the recent mining tragedies, lawmakers are pushing to increase fines and strengthen safety laws. But Clinton said MSHA already has power it isn't using.

Senator CLINTON: Part of the challenge here is to enforce the laws we have. What kind of message does it send? Everybody needs to be pushed to do what is expected. I mean, that's human nature.

LANGFITT: Senators at the hearing also wanted to know why the U.S. does not mandate safety equipment, which has recently saved lives in other countries, including air chambers and locating devices. For instance, earlier this week, rescuers in Poland used a homing device to locate a man who'd been trapped in a coalmine for five days.

But Michael Nissen(ph), of the American Society of Safety Engineers, said that what may work in one mine may not in another. He urged the government not to take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Mr. MICHAEL NISSEN (American Society of Safety Engineers): There's just a world of difference between different kinds of mines. Our underground limestone mines bear almost no resemblance to an underground coal mine. And as such, the different mining industries have very different risk factors that all have to be considered individually if you want to provide all miners with the highest possible level of protection.

LANGFITT: One panelist at the hearing, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, tried to bring home the human toll of the accidents this year. He read from a note written by of the 12 miners who died in January after an underground explosion in Sago, West Virginia. The miner addressed his family, as he waited in the dark for rescue, eight hours after the blast.

Mr. CECIL ROBERTS (President, United Mine Workers): "I'm still okay. It's 2:40 p.m. We don't hear any attempts at drilling or rescue. The section is full of smoke and fumes so we can't escape. We are all alive. Be strong and I hope no one else has to show you this note. I love you all, Junior Hamner."

LANGFITT: MSHA's come under intense criticism in the past couple of months, but it insists it's done a good job, noting that overall, coal mine deaths have dropped dramatically since the 1970s.

David Dye, the MSHA chief, said the agency will hold a workshop next month to examine mine safety equipment from around the world.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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