We Must Strengthen Senate Bill To Protect Miners

The tragic 33 coal mine deaths that have occurred so far this year have taught us lessons that Congress must not ignore, especially as the House now has the opportunity to strengthen and pass mine safety legislation already passed by the Senate. Unfortunately the Senate bill fails to address the major weaknesses in mine safety that have been highlighted by the tragedies at the Sago, Aracoma Alma, Darby and other mining disasters.

I have urged Majority Leader Boehner to allow the House to vote on 3 key amendments that would provide miners with safeguards they urgently need—and that we know could have saved lives at Sago and other mining tragedies. These key provisions would: (1) ensure miners trapped underground have at least 48 hours of air to survive, (2) ensure that the special air packs miners use for escape are routinely sampled to make sure they work properly, and (3) require communications and tracking devices for miners within 15 months. With these additions, the Senate legislation will be an important first step towards real protection for mine workers, safeguards that the family members of fallen miners have repeatedly called for. Without these additions, I cannot support the legislation.

A West Virginia joint industry-labor task force just issued recommendations that are consistent with these provisions, and demonstrates that the industry regards these requirements as feasible. Similarly, the Illinois state legislature passed a mine safety bill (with almost unanimous bipartisan support) that is more protective than the Senate legislation. We know that at the Sago mine, the 12 miners who did not die from the initial explosion were trapped underground for 40 hours. We also know that there have been questions about whether the special air packs these miners were using functioned properly. And we know that even with just one way wireless communications devices, these 12 miners could have escaped-and survived.

By adding these 3 amendments to the Senate bill, the House has the opportunity to pass legislation that members of both parties could feel proud of as a first step towards improving safety in our nation’s mines. Coal miners in every state face the same dangers, and they should have the same safety protections, whether they live in Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia, or any other state. These miners risk their lives every day in order to provide our country with a vital energy resource. We owe them a real solution to the problems that have claimed the lives of far too many of their fellow miners. All members of Congress should be able to look the families of victims of these tragedies in the eye and assure them that we took all responsible measures to ensure that our nation's miners will not find themselves trapped with inadequate supplies of oxygen and life support, or no wireless communications. 

More in Foreign Policy

A World War II anniversary fosters a diplomatic olive branch from Putin’s Russia

Read more »