? _ RL34429 - Coal Mine Safety and Health
23-Feb-2009; Linda Levine; 17 p.

Update: Previous editions:
September 5, 2008

Abstract: Safety in the coal mining industry is much improved compared to the early decades of the twentieth century, a time when hundreds of miners could lose their lives in a single accident and more than 1,000 fatalities could occur in a single year. Fatal injuries associated with coal mine accidents fell almost continually between 1925 and 2005, when they reached an all-time low of 23. In 2006, however, the number of fatalities more than doubled to 47. Fatalities declined a year later to 33, which is comparable to levels achieved during the late 1990s.

Coal miners also suffer from occupationally caused diseases. Prime among them is black lung (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, CWP), which still claims about 1,000 fatalities annually. Improved dust control requirements have led to a decrease in the prevalence of CWP, but 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 addition, disagreement persists over the current respirable dust limits and the degree of compliance with them by mine operators.

In the wake of the January 2006 Sago Mine accident, 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 quickened starting later that year, however, after enactment in June of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER, P.L. 109-236). The MINER act emphasized factors thought to have played a role in the Sago disaster and imposed several rulemaking deadlines on MSHA. Although the agency has not met all of the act’s deadlines, it has published the requisite final standards on emergency mine evacuation, civil penalties, rescue teams, and mine seals.

Some policymakers remain dissatisfied with MSHA’s performance. These sentiments led to House passage, in January 2008, of the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER, H.R. 2768). It incorporates language from the Miner Health Enhancement Act (H.R. 2769), such as requiring MSHA to adopt as mandatory exposure limits the voluntary limits (to chemical hazards, for example) recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. S-MINER also requires MSHA to more closely review and monitor operator plans that include retreat mining, the practice used at Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine where six miners and three rescuers lost their lives in 2007. The President has said he will veto S-MINER as passed by the House.

Following the release of investigations by congressional committees and others into the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse, MSHA issued its accident report on July 24, 2008. It assessed a fine totaling $1,636,664 on the mine operator for such violations as failing to revise and follow its roof control plan and failing to notify MSHA of coal bursts that preceded the deadly burst on August 6, 2007. MSHA also fined the engineering consulting firm that provided the operator with flawed analyses that resulted in an inadequate roof control plan. In early September 2008, MSHA announced that it has asked the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah to consider filing criminal charges in connection with the Crandall Canyon Mine accident. [read report]

Topics: Energy, General Interest, Natural Resources

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