Ex-Utahn's mine safety track record scrutinized

In wake of deaths: Union says industry-friendly approach had the fox watching the henhouse
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WASHINGTON - Senators cast a skeptical eye Monday toward the agency that regulates coal mine safety, asking whether more could be done to protect miners and challenging industry-friendly decisions while a former Utah mining official led the agency.

The hearing came on the heels of two West Virginia coal mine accidents this month that have killed 14 miners.

“These deaths, I believe, were entirely preventable, and we owe the families of these deceased and noble and great and brave men a hard look at what happened and why,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Ps., who chaired the hearing, noted that the budget for the Mine Safety and Health Administration has barely kept pace with inflation over the last decade, and that the agency has reduced its staff by 183 positions.

David Dye, the acting head of MSHA, said the agency has tried to keep inspectors in the mines. He said the agency has issued more citations and has seen a 25 percent decrease in the injury rate and a 33 percent decline in the fatality rate from 2000 to 2005.

Bush administration hot seat: It was a hearing that in many ways dealt with the Bush administration's track record on mine safety, which was spearheaded for nearly four years by Utah native Dave Lauriski, who did not testify.

Lauriski, a third-generation coal miner, was an executive with Energy West Mining before being chosen to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. As head of MSHA, Lauriski took an industry-friendly approach, seeking to cooperate and encourage companies to improve safety rather than mandate reforms. He is now a private mine safety consultant in Colorado.

“In 2001 we put the coal industry in charge of this agency,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, who said Lauriski withdrew 17 proposed regulations that would have improved miner safety.

Those regulations would have encouraged additional mine rescue teams, sought to provide additional breathing devices inside the mines, and decrease the levels of coal dust.

On Monday, MSHA announced it was beginning to collect information in several areas such as mine rescue technologies and will explore increasing penalties for mine violations.

More money to be requested: Additionally, Dye said, the administration will request more money when it proposes its budget next month.

Specter suggested coal companies be required to pay a fee to deploy safety technology without relying on federal support.

Davitt McAteer, the head of MSHA during the Clinton administration, who is leading an investigation into the Sago, W.Va., mine explosion, displayed a text messaging device that can alert miners to problems in the mine. He said the device was used by miners in Utah's Willow Creek mine during a 1998 fire and allowed 45 miners to escape safely. However, seven years later, he said the device is in use in just 14 mines.

Likewise, there are tracking systems that can help rescuers locate trapped miners that cost about $20 each.

Dye and Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, which ran the Sago mine, said there have been reliability problems with the messaging systems, and Hatfield said they can be incapacitated in an explosion.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said it seems clear that technology exists that could protect miners.

“You hate to regulate everything, but, doggone it, if they're not going to do it, we have to tell them to do it,” Harkin said.