A group of 11 “academic experts in mine safety and health” sent a letter today to the leadership of the House Education and Labor Committee urging them to withdraw legislation (HR 2768 and HR 2769) on miners’ safety and health. The authors of the letter say that “now is not the right time to pursue” further improvements for miners.

Signers of the letters include several chairs of mining engineering departments, such as professor Larry Grayson, who offered just days ago a similar dire warning about more mine safety protections in an op-ed called Mine Mania (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/22/07). He said:

many “good operators [have taken] voluntary steps to improve mine safety. …Once adopted, these voluntary measures undoubtedly will improve the safety of coal miners. …additional legislation now would not only intensify the chaos in the coal fields…”

Chaos in the coal fields? I’m not sure I’m ready to fall for this sky-is-falling prediction.

These university professors say they “were thankful for the passage of the MINER Act,” a bill signed into law in June 2006, but if additional requirements are placed on mine operators it would “dramatically disrupt the very core of the industry.” They say that mining companies:

“are not being afforded the opportunity to entrench the necessary safety culture in the mines. They must ultimately ensure that many of the MINER Act provisions will be institutionalized in practice at their mines. Thus far, they have been fully occupied with the nuts-and-bolts of complying with the act…”

Let’s refresh our memories on the “nuts-and-bolts” of the 2006 MINER Act. Underground coal mine operators had to:

  • submit to MSHA (by 8/15/06) a written accident response plan;
  • include provisions in the plan to coordinate with mine rescue teams and local emergency response personnel;
  • provide a back-up means of communication for miners to communicate with the surface, such as a secondary telephone line, (in case the primary means is destroyed in an explosion or roof fall);
  • have in place a tracking system, if commercially available and applicable to the individual mine, so that miners can be located easily during a mine rescue;
  • store underground an additional supply of breathing apparatus to give trapped miners a total of four hours of safe air; and
  • train miners on how to use the breathing apparatus and how to swap an air-depleted device to a fresh one.

Under the law, all of these provisions should already be in place at underground coal mines. How can these professors argue that mine operators are still “fully occupied with the nuts-and-bolts” of the act? Where is their evidence that more requirements forced upon operators will cause chaos in the coal fields?*

When I look at HR 2768 and HR 2769 here’s what I see: a number of additional requirements directed at underground coal operators and some others for all mine operators. (According to MSHA data, in the U.S. there are about 600 underground coal and 1,375 surface coal mines in the country, and 240 underground and 12,000 surface metal and non-metal mines.)

Under the terms of the bill, underground coal operators would:

  • Have to install emergency refuge chambers;
  • Have to replace conveyor belts if they don’t meet flame resistance requirements;
  • Be prohibited from ventilating the working areas of a mine with belt air (which led to the disaster at the Alma/Aracoma mine which killed two coal miners.)

The bill also:

  • Clarifies the term “pattern of violation” to assist inspectors in citing mine operators who have a history of repeat violations;
  • Increases the minimum penalty from $60 to $500, establishes a penalty of at least $10,000 for an operator who retaliates against a miner for complaining about safety, and strengthens MSHA’s authority to collect overdue fines; and,
  • Sets a more protective exposure limits for respirable coal dust, silica, and asbestos, and require MSHA to replace permissible exposure limits which date back to 1973, with limits recommended by NIOSH.

Now, I certainly expect the big mining industry associations, like the National Mining Association and the Kentucky Coal Association, to oppose these bills. But why mining engineering professors? You’d think that more attention on mine safety and health practices and systems would provide opportunities for their students and graduates.

I can’t really figure out the professors’ views on this matter. When a representative of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) writes a letter or testifies before Congress about a mine safety matter, it’s obvious that they are representing the interests of their union members. Likewise for a group like the National Mining Association—we know they are representing their members’ opinions. But when university professors or academic scientists offer their views, it’s not always clear whether they have some other interests at stake, including financial or contractual interests.

As my colleague David Michaels PhD, MPH has written (and here) about the biomedical community’s concern about potential conflicts of interest which led the editors of the leading medical journals to establish strict policies for the disclosure of financial relationships. This allows people reading scientific articles to judge for themselves whether the author’s views have been influenced by those financial ties. Dr. Michaels has proposed “equal treatment” regulatory science, so lawmakers and agency officials can make similiar assessments about comments or testimony offered during a rulemaking. (Read Michaels’ Disclosure in Regulatory Science)

The letter sent by the 11 “academic experts in mine safety and health” notes:

“This letter represents our position on the issues as mine safety and health experts, and does not necessarily represent the position of our respective institutions.”

I respectfully invite them also to provide to Chairman Miller (D-CA) and Ranking Member McKeon (R-CA) an attachment which discloses their financial ties or other conflicts of interest.

For me, it was also troubling to see that two of the letter’s signers are former senior NIOSH officials. Professor Larry Grayson was the former director of NIOSH’s mine safety and health research program and Professor John Hill was the Director of the Spokane Research Lab. These individuals should know first hand that miners are still developing black lung disease and silicosis, have no protections for asbestos exposure, and need a much improved mine rescue system. All of these hazards are addressed by this new legislation to which they are opposed.

At a recent congressional hearing, the current director of NIOSH’s mine health and safety research division, Jeff Kohler PhD, said that his staff ends each day by asking “what did I do for miners today?” I wish more people who provide technical advice and expertise on mining safety and health would adopt the same slogan.

Note: In the months following passage of the 2006 MINER Act, MSHA did move forward with some additional protections for underground coal miners. A requirement to improve the construction and maintenance of seals, is one such initiative, but rightly so. MSHA acknowledged that if more stringent requirements

“It is reasonable to assume that if the emergency regulation had been in effect, all 17 of these miners’ lives might have been saved.” (Read more here)