Little progress has been made in mine safety

WASHINGTON — Two years after Congress passed historic mine-safety legislation, many of the nation's mines still have no way to provide air to trapped miners and, despite the law's mandate, can't provide two-way wireless communications underground because that technology doesn't exist yet, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.

Those issues and the ongoing debate over stricter mine-safety regulations will be the focus of a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday. Richard Stickler, the acting head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is slated to testify about the agency's progress in meeting the mandates set forth in the 2006 MINER Act, a law designed to make mining safer.

"In the last 18 months, MSHA has worked at an unprecedented pace to implement the MINER Act," said Matthew Faraci, a mine-safety agency spokesman.

The agency has put several new safety rules in place and has additional regulations pending, Faraci said. Proposed guidelines released this week include significantly reducing the hazard of conveyor-belt fires in underground coal mines and creating better refuges for miners who become trapped underground during emergencies.

Requirements for stronger seals in mines to help prevent explosions were approved earlier this year. The MINER Act allows the mine-safety agency to provide an alternative to two-way wireless communications underground if that technology isn't in place by next year, Faraci said.

The agency's efforts have received mixed reviews.

"I don't see why the agency would brag on what they were mandated to do under the law," said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer and former mine-safety regulator. "The proposed rule on mine seals was proposed before the deadline. That was something that had to be done, and I give them credit for doing that. Unfortunately, Mr. Stickler takes his orders from the White House, and the White House is more concerned with coal operators producing coal than coal miners working in the mines."

Critics, including Democrats in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. George Miller of California, say the Bush administration has failed "to work aggressively to keep miners safe on the job." Democrats said the Bush administration had done little to push for changes and had filled top-level positions at the Mine Safety and Health Administration with former mining-company executives, including Stickler.

Since the safety law passed, Democrats, the Bush administration and lawmakers from coal-rich states have debated how to best regulate the coal-mining industry.

In January, the Democratic backers of a House bill designed to force mining regulatory agencies to take a tougher stance with coal operators netted a narrow victory but fell far short of a veto-proof majority. President Bush has vowed to veto the measure, which would require the mine safety agency to impose stricter fines for health and safety violations, add safeguards to the oft-criticized "retreat mining" practice, call for a reduction in black lung and other mining-related health issues and improve emergency responses to disasters.

The mining industry has faced increased scrutiny after several high-profile deaths.

Last summer, a collapse at Crandall Canyon in Utah killed nine miners. In 2006, an underground explosion at the Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., killed five people, and an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia killed 12 miners.

Stickler said the agency had tried to improve safety in mines by increasing the number of inspectors to more than 700 and had issued more than 50 fines for mines that were found to have violated rules. However, the agency also has faced pushback from more than 200 mine operators, who are contesting fines.

"They're trying to game the system," Faraci said.

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