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Econ Focus

$afety First

When markets work, it pays for companies to have safer workplaces, including the coalfields of Virginia and West Virginia
By Charles Gerena

Responses to Tragedy

It didn't take long for federal and state officials to react to the rash of tragic mining accidents in West Virginia. Coal mine operators have criticized some of the new safety requirements for being impractical or inflexible, such as equipping every miner with a tracking device that may not work in every mine configuration.

Thus far, the primary response of the private sector has been the formation of the Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission by the National Mining Association in January. The 10-member group will review new and existing technology and training procedures that could help improve safety in underground coal mines.

Here's a rundown of the regulatory responses since the Sago mine explosion on January 2 and the Alma belt fire on January 19 that killed a total of 14 miners:

January 23
In one day, West Virginia lawmakers introduce and approve three safety requirements for the mining industry. First, underground mines must have marked caches of self-contained self-rescue devices (SCSR), each of which provides an hour's supply of oxygen. Second, each miner must carry a wireless communication device and wireless tracker. Finally, mine operators must contact a 24-hour hotline within 15 minutes of an accident or face a $100,000 fine.

February 1
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin requests that the state's 500-plus mines shut down production so that every shift of workers could review safety procedures. In addition, Manchin orders state inspectors to immediately begin a review of all mines. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) agrees to send federal inspectors to assist.

February 6
MSHA has coal mines across the country conduct a one-hour "Stand Down for Safety" at the start of each shift to discuss safety issues, following West Virginia example.

February 16
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) submits an amendment to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 that would impose numerous mandates on underground mining. These include creating an oxygen station in mines with at least a four-day supply for every worker and providing each miner with wireless communications and tracking devices. In addition, a mine's ventilation system, dust and methane control plan, and roof control plan would be reviewed every three months and many penalties would be dramatically increased.

March 1
Rep. Phil English (R-Penn.) introduces a bill to encourage private investment in mine safety. The legislation would allow a coal mine operator to get a tax deduction on 50 percent of its expenditures on certain advanced safety equipment, including oxygen supplies and atmospheric monitoring systems. Operators would also receive a tax credit to help cover training expenses for mine rescue teams.

March 7
MSHA adopts several emergency temporary standards, some of which mirror the measures enacted in West Virginia. Mine operators must maintain additional oxygen supplies for each underground miner, provide additional evacuation training, install lifelines in all primary and alternate escape routes to help workers find their way out in an emergency, and inform MSHA of an accident within 15 minutes of its occurrence.

Hearings were held this past spring to determine if these standards need to be revised before they become permanent in December.

May 16
Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) introduces the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, which implements many of the provisions in bills previously under consideration. In addition, the act raises penalties for violating mining safety regulations, establishes a panel to study conveyer belt safety, and provides grants to encourage safety training. The Senate unanimously passed the bill on May 24, while the House approved it on June 7. President Bush signed the bill eight days later.

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