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Friday, April 23, 2010

Coal Mine Safety and Health

Linda Levine
Specialist in Labor Economics

Fatal injuries associated with coal mine accidents fell almost continually between 1925 and 2005. In 2006, however, the number of fatalities more than doubled to 47, which prompted the 110th Congress to enact the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER, P.L. 109- 236). Fatalities declined in subsequent years and dropped to a low of 18 in 2009. With the deaths of 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, the 111th Congress appears set to turn its attention to worker safety and health at the nation's mines. 

Coal miners also suffer from occupationally caused diseases. Prime among them is black lung, which still claims about 1,000 lives annually. Although improved dust control requirements have led to a decrease in the prevalence of CWP, there is recent evidence of advanced cases among miners who began their careers after the stronger standards went into effect in the early 1970s. 

In the wake of the methane explosion at Sago Mine in West Virginia in January 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was criticized for its slow pace of rulemaking earlier in the decade. MSHA standard-setting activity subsequently quickened after enactment in June 2006 of the MINER Act. The statute emphasized factors thought to have played a role in the Sago disaster and imposed several rulemaking deadlines on MSHA. The agency published the requisite final standards on emergency mine evacuation, civil penalties, rescue teams, mine seals, flame-resistant conveyor belts and belt air, and refuge alternatives by the end of 2008. 

The MINER Act also required that, by June 15, 2009, two-way wireless communications systems and electronic tracking systems be part of emergency response plans (ERPs). But, on January 16, 2009, MSHA issued a program policy letter which states that "because fully wireless communications technology is not sufficiently developed at this time, nor is it likely to be technologically feasible by June 15, 2009 ... [n]ew ERPs and revisions to existing ERPs should provide for alternatives to fully wireless communication systems." The guidance sets forth "the features MSHA believes would best approximate the functional utility and safety protections of a fully wireless system, given the limitations of current technology." Because MSHA-approved electronic tracking systems now are available, the letter states that operators of underground coal mines are expected to provide for them in new and revised ERPs. 

When the MINER Act was passed, some Members of the 110th Congress characterized it as a first step that would be followed by additional measures. In January 2008, the House passed the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER, H.R. 2768), which incorporated language from the Miner Health Enhancement Act (H.R. 2769). Some of its provisions addressed issues which arose from the Crandall Canyon Mine incident in Utah in August 2007. The Bush Administration opposed S-MINER. In addition to the holding of hearings in the wake of the April 2010 underground coal mine disaster in West Virginia, some Members of the 111th Congress may be considering S-MINER as a basis for legislation.

Date of Report: April 12, 2010
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL34429
Price: $29.95

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