A bill to help rescue miners in emergencies and protect miners’ safety was defeated in Congress three years ago. After passing the House, the bill, called the S-MINER Act, died in a Senate committee.

Mining interests, who were opposed to this bill, gave twice as much money in campaign contributions to House members who voted against the bill as they gave to members who voted in favor.

In the Senate committee where the bill died, mining firms gave more than twice as much money to committee members as the unions in support.

Background

The recent explosion at the Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners has left many bewildered Americans questioning how the federal government could have prevented this tragedy. It has been reported that Massey was in violation of safety regulations and that federal regulatory oversight of mining conditions was lax.

In June of 2007, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act, which, according to the Congressional Research Service, would have supplemented existing mining provisions in the Federal Mine Act to require: “(1) emergency response plans to incorporate new technology; (2) the Secretary of Labor to require the installation of rescue chambers in underground coal mines; and (3) accident response plans to provide for the maintenance of refuges.”

Miller chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, which issued a report stating: “The S-MINER Act aims to prevent disasters and, in cases where disasters do occur, to improve emergency response. It also aims to reduce long-term health risks facing miners, such as black lung.” Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) explained the bill was necessary because the 2006 MINER Act provisions had not been effectively enforced. So far, I am concerned that the slow pace of reform is leaving America’s miners at risk. We’ve made progress. But [the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA)] has not moved aggressively to implement all of the provisions of the MINER Act.”

Opposition

Two months after introduction of the bill, the Crandall Canyon mining disaster occurred, killing six miners in Utah. Even after this tragedy highlighted the dangers of industry standard practices and deficiencies of regulatory oversight, the mining industry continued to oppose the bill. The National Mining Association’s Vice President for Safety, Health and Human Resources testified before the committee. “To be forced to respond to an additional layer of statutory requirements at this time will undermine the progress that has been made on miner training and other vital objectives of the act. It is premature to consider imposing further legislation before the full impact of the original MINER Act can be comprehensively evaluated.” Further opposition cited concerns about energy independence and job losses. Congressman Don Young of Alaska (R) argued, “If this bill was to become law, mines will be shut down. They will be shut down.” The Bush Administration also strongly opposed the bill, claiming that “several of the regulatory mandates in the S-MINER bill would weaken several existing regulations and overturn regulatory processes that were required by the MINER Act and are ongoing.”