WASHINGTON (PAI)–Despite a veto threat by anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush, the Democratic-run House passed a new mine safety bill–strongly supported by the AFL-CIO, the Mine Workers, the Steel Workers and mine victims’ families–by 214-199 on Jan. 16. Democrats favored it 207-16; the GOP did not, 7-183.

The S-Miner Act, HR 2768, “would build on the improvements” in mine safety enacted two years ago in a bipartisan mine safety law after a series of disasters then, AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel told lawmakers in arguing for the legislation.

Lawmakers said disasters since that law, notably the explosions and collapses in Crandall Canyon, Utah, showed the need for more safety measures. HR 2768 installs a wide range of them, including a mandated 50 percent cut in how much coal dust a miner may be exposed to. “Black Lung is back,” the bill’s summary notes.

But Bush’s Office of Management and Budget argued HR 2768 would halt some of those prior improvements in their tracks, that some of its requirements had technical problems and that it “was not drafted with participation of all the stakeholders” in coal mining, meaning mine owners.

And in an indication of how much miners, their families, the Mine Workers and lawmakers mistrust Bush, HR 2768 says two other agencies besides the Mine Safety and Health Administration–which Bush has stacked with company executives–can probe mine safety, too. They are the [independent] federal Chemical Safety Board and the Labor Department’s [also-independent] inspector general, Bush’s veto message says.

The technical problems, new agencies and no inclusion of the owners all pushed the Bush regime’s OMB to recommend he veto HR 2768.

That didn’t stop the House Education and Labor Committee’s Democrats, who crafted the bill, the AFL-CIO, the Mine Workers, or the families of the miners killed in the August explosion and collapse at Crandall Canyon.

HR 2768 “adds new safeguards for retreat mining, a dangerous practice that involves removing the coal pillars originally left in place to hold up the roof of the mine,” committee chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) explained. The Crandall Canyon explosions collapsed pillars, killing six miners and–in the second blast–three rescuers.

The new bill also “enshrines in the law critical standards for explosion-proof seals, the walls that block off an abandoned area of a mine, where methane can build to dangerous levels,” and orders the mines to start using “new, fire-resistant conveyor belts” to carry coal out, and tells mine owners to stop using the same system to carry belt air in, Miller said.

And it gives the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) subpoena power, makes it easier for the agency to fine owners of unsafe mines, increases the fines “and allows MSHA to shut down mines that do not promptly abate violations,” Miller said. HR 2768 creates a miner ombudsman so miners and families can blow the whistle on safety problems “without fear of retaliation.”

The Crandall Canyon families told Miller’s panel that whistle-blowers feared retaliation at the non-union mine. That was a contrast with union mines, where UMWA contracts protect whistleblowers and provide joint labor-management committees to air safety issues. In their letter, the families thanked lawmakers for acting, saying, “We have experienced what happens when the coal industry puts profits before miners’ safety.”

All the mine disasters “identified and highlighted major gaps and deficiencies in the protections afforded miners,” Samuel said. “Insufficient emergency oxygen, lack of communication and tracking devices, lack of refuge chambers, inadequate mine seals, use of flammable conveyor belts and belt air for ventilation, and dangerous retreat mining practices have all contributed to the deaths of miners. Oversight found MSHA failed to address important health problems–including exposure to asbestos, toxic chemicals, and coal dust,” he added.

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts pointed out a key difference between the 2-year-old Miner act and the new bill: HR 2768 “is designed to prevent accidents and illnesses” while the prior law covered after-accident responses, he said. “Miners need your help now, before we bear witness to even more needless disasters,” he said.

Remembering the 81 coal miners who died since New Year’s Day 2006, Roberts added HR 2768 “will help stop the coalfield carnage we have witnessed for far too long.”.

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