Brooke Wisdom

August 1, 2010

Mine the Safety Data

By Therese Dunphy

Sunshine. Sago. Upper Big Branch. Each of these coal operations has impacted mining in a way that resonates beyond the miners, families, and companies involved in the catastrophes at each site.

Since 2006, 47 coal miners have died in underground explosions.

The Sunshine Mine tragedy led to the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Act, the granddaddy of all safety regulations. Sago sparked the development of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act) and generated increased scrutiny and fines. The underground explosion at Upper Big Branch spurred development of the Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010, which could make the violation of any requirement of the act a felony.

Introduced on July 1, the legislation is being pushed by Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee as well as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It is flying through Congress at such a fast pace that it may be law by the time you receive this issue.

11,323 citations have been issued this year to stone, sand & gravel operators.

While legislators likely feel a need to swiftly respond to the latest coal tragedy, any appropriate regulation should create meaningful improvements in safety and should be directed at the operators and aspects of operations that merit increased scrutiny. A one-size-fits-all approach will not achieve a significant improvement in mine safety and may very well redirect resources that could otherwise be invested in safety. For example, I recall a producer who conducted an internal compliance audit after the MINER Act was passed. The results of that audit led the mine to spend $800 on a restaurant-style coffee pot and microwave to avoid possible inspection citations and penalties.

In January, 2010, 30.1% citations have been issued this year to stone, sand & gravel operators.

Congress would do well to review the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s fatality and citation reports. They yield insightful data. Through mid-July, the metal/non-metal sector reported the fewest year-to-date fatalities (11) since before the MINER Act was developed and are on track to beat 2009 as the lowest fatality rate on recent record. During the same period, the coal sector registered 41 fatalities. Of those, 29 were due to underground explosions. In fact, since 2006, more than 27 percent of coal mine fatalities have been due to ignition/explosion of gas/dust — more than any other cause.

In 2009, $141,178,621 in citations were issued.

The government has invested millions of dollars in investigating accidents, determining the root cause, and assigning responsibility. Before promulgating another regulation, Congress would do well to examine that research and base regulations on the hard lessons learned through Sunshine, Sago, and Upper Big Branch.

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