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Pennsylvania mine safety bill disappointing in current form

February 27, 2008


FEBRUARY 27, 2008

CONTACT:        Phil Smith

Pennsylvania mine safety bill “disappointing” in current form, UMWA says

    The version of a mine health and safety bill passed by the Pennsylvania State Senate is a “disappointment” that still needs work to bring it up to the level of mine health and safety laws passed by other states in recent years, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) said today.

    UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said, “Every piece of legislation passed by other states in the wake of the coalfield tragedies over the past several years–in West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois–represents vast improvement in mine safety and health. The legislation in Pennsylvania, as passed by the State Senate, does not represent that level of improvement.

    “There are some improvements in the current language of the Pennsylvania bill,” Roberts said.  “But the kind of changes needed to significantly upgrade mine safety and health, limit the likelihood of  emergencies happening in the first place and improve the chances of miners surviving an incident when it does happen are missing from the Senate version of the bill.”

    For example, the current bill does not include language that would require mine operators to install rail track to within 500 feet of a working face of a mine, meaning that miners who suffer injuries at the face would have to be carried by hand for a significant distance before they could be transported out of the mine by underground rail car. Laying track close to the face of the mine would allow injured miners to be transported out of the mine and delivered to emergency rescue personnel on the surface much more quickly.

    The current version of the bill does include language that would actually increase the risks faced by miners in the event of a fire or explosion underground. Mine operators would be allowed to eliminate a separate and distinct escape route to the surface and instead utilize a “dual compartment” airshaft as a primary and secondary escapeway.

    A dual compartment airshaft is essentially a single shaft in a mine with a barrier built down the middle. Under the Senate bill’s language, operators could say that this satisfies the requirement for two escapeways in a mine, even though it would in fact be in a single shaft.

    “If there was an explosion or fire at the bottom of the shaft or in close proximity to that dual compartment escapeway, miners would have no way out of the mine under the Senate version of the bill,” said UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane. “This isn’t just a theoretical issue, it has happened in other mines. We cannot support language that would place miners at greater risk than they already are.”

    “Over the past several months, we have repeatedly raised our concerns about these and other critical issues–like having the same level of standards and rights regarding accompanying inspectors as exists under federal law and the legal definition of a shift–with the Governor’s office, the Department of Environmental Protection, members of the State Senate and the Pennsylvania Coal Association,” Kane said. “We are frustrated that those concerns were not incorporated into the Senate bill.

    “But there is still another opportunity for the Legislature to get this bill right in the House of Representatives,”Kane said. “That is why we will be working hard in Harrisburg over the next several weeks. Our voices will be heard, loud and clear.”

    Roberts and Kane said that UMWA members will be lobbying state House members over the next several weeks, and the union is planning a major rally to be held in Harrisburg in March.

    “Some are saying that we need to compromise our positions in order to get a bill passed,” Roberts said. “We understand very well how the legislative process works. But when it comes to miners’ health and safety, the UMWA cannot and will not compromise. That is one of our core missions, and we are not going to take any backward steps when it comes to safer and healthier mines. Not now, and not ever.”

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