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Commentary: The Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act

By Beth Wellington, Published on January 22, 2008

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, forty years ago, a trash truck compactor accidentally triggered, crushing to death two sanitation workers. The resulting strike, which drew Martin Luther King, Jr., to that city, sought not only civil rights, but union membership and worker safety.

The Sago mine disaster on January 2, 2006, captured national attention and resulted in passage of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER), but critics such as George Miller (D-CA), wanted a stronger law. The deaths of additional miners in Utah in may have spurred House passage of his "Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act" or S-MINER (H.R. 2768) January 16 by a vote of 214 to 199.

As introduced, the bill proposed to require:

President Bush’s January 15 threatened veto of S-MINER on the eve of its consideration again raises the question of whether Congress will be able to pass any legislation which he opposes. As SCHIP revealed, mustering enough Senate votes to stop a filibuster is insufficient. There must be enough votes to override a veto, something which has happened only once during his administration, in the case of the water projects bill, where widely spread spending meant there was something for everyone to bring the folks back home.

On January 16, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), Senior Republican Member on the Education and Labor Committee, sent out a Dear Colleague letter saying that S-MINER would "dismantle" the MINER Act.

Before the vote, the bill's sponsor George Miller offered an amendment to provide: the mining industry with more time to install a new generation of fire-resistant conveyor belts, as well as funds for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to purchase a new generation of dust monitoring devices to limit black lung disease, and ensure that breathable air requirements of the MINER Act of 2006 are properly implemented.

In addition, the amendment requires that the Secretary of Labor to conduct a study on substance abuse by miners with recommendations for policy changes, in consultation with all interested parties. The Secretary shall report the findings within six months of the bill's enactment and, if she deems it feasible and effective, shall be authorized to establish a miner substance abuse testing, rehabilitation, and treatment program within MSHA in consultation with the interested parties.

Rick Boucher (D-VA) offered an amendment to provide ten million dollars for grants to provide rehabilitation services to current and former miners suffering from mental health impairments, including drug addiction and substance abuse issues, which may have been caused or exacerbated by their work as miners.

Brad Elsworth (D-IN) offered an amendment to relieve mine operators that have been assessed penalties and pay them in a timely fashion. It also establishes a trust fund within Treasury, composed of mine safety civil penalties. Funds from the trust fund can be used for mine safety inspections and investigations only.

All these amendments passed.

Meanwhile although there are exactly zero underground mines in South Carolina (see the Census Bureau's 1997 Economic Census on Mining for South Carolina page 13), and the pit mining there seems to be gravel and sand and clay (page 12), Joe Wilson (R-SC) who represents the second district which comprises the midlands of Columbia down to Hilton Head Island submitted an amendment in the nature of a substitute to scuttle the bill and instead: promote the continued robust implementation of the 2006 MINER Act.

Then, after that amendment failed and the bill passed Mark Souder (R-IN) tried to get the matter returned to committee, but failed. A look at the vote reveals that that Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia was one of only 7 Republicans to vote for the bill. The others were: Spencer Bachus (AL), Wayne Gilchrest (MD), Sam Graves (MO), Frank LoBiondo (NJ), Chris Shays (CT) and Chris Smith (NJ). In addition, 16 Democrats joined the minority in voting against the bill:

The National Mining Association's (NMA) astroturf group, ACT for Mining, had taken the position that Mr. Miller was pushing a new "mine safety" bill even before the mining community has had a chance to fully implement the bipartisan Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act. The House is set to vote on Jan. 16 on the Supplemental-MINER Act (H.R. 2768), a bill that would impose new, unnecessary regulations on both hardrock and coal mining operations that will do nothing to improve mine safety. Passage of this new legislation could possibly idle or close mines and have unintended, adverse effects on mine safety.

NMA sent out multiple alerts urging supporters to call or e-mail their House members and ask them to vote against the bill. After passage, which it termed "narrow," it sent a new alert promoting thank-you letters the 199 who voted against the bill, saying that

The 199 votes cast in opposition are substantially more than the 145 votes needed to sustain a threatened presidential veto, should one ultimately be necessary. This action also will likely diminish interest in Senate consideration of H.R. 2768, in essence, stopping the progress of this bad bill.

Like others, I associate the month of January with two holidays of hope: New Year’s Day on which we can resolve to do better, and Martin Luther King Day, on which we can reflect on King’s dream for all of us. As someone in Appalachia, I always remember that King devoted what were to be his last days to planning the went on to say, I’m so thankful I went down there that day because I might have gone all my life just the way it was.

And so, as we start 2008, I'm wondering if there is reason for hope for a strengthened Mine Safety Act or whether the National Mining Association will prevail, and things will continue just the way it was.