UNANIMOUS-CONSENT REQUEST--EXECUTIVE CALENDAR
Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I rise today because five families in Harlan County in the Commonwealth of Kentucky suffered a devastating and tragic loss this past weekend. As many of our colleagues are aware, an explosion rocked the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 around 1:30 Saturday morning.
According to news reports, the blast occurred nearly a mile underground near a sealed-off area of the mine. The force of the explosion was so powerful it caused damage over 5,000 feet up at the mine opening.
Five miners were killed. Their families are, of course, completely devastated, and the entire community is struggling for answers in the face of such a catastrophe, an unexpected tragedy that is so overwhelming it breaks your heart and almost leaves you numb.
There is one ray of light in this otherwise very dark episode. One miner, a man named Paul Ledford of Dayhoit, KY, managed to escape the blast. He was injured but reportedly was still able to walk out of the mine on his own two feet. After a short stay in the hospital, he was released, and I am sure his family is thrilled that he survived the catastrophe.
The Darby mine explosion brings this year's total number of deaths from mining accidents in Kentucky to 10, double what it was just 72 hours ago. Thank goodness Paul Ledford's name is not on that list.
But these Kentuckians' names are: Paris Thomas, Jr., 53, of Closplint; George William Petra, 49, of Kenvir; Jimmy B. Lee, 33, of Wallins Creek; Amon ``Cotton'' Brock, 51, of Closplint; and Roy Middleton, 35, of Evarts. All were lost in this explosion Saturday.
The Harlan County coroner's report indicates that Amon Brock and Jimmy Lee were killed instantly by the tremendous force of the explosion. The other three survived long enough to put on breathing devices, but still died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Their loved ones will never forget the last time they saw them before they descended into the mines. Nor will they forget the calamity that, sadly, added their names to this list. Neither should we ever forget them.
The authorities are still investigating the cause of this accident. Some accidents are, unfortunately, entirely unpreventable. But other accidents are all the more horrific because they could have been prevented. When it comes to the second type, this Senate can and must act to prevent them. The list of Kentucky mining deaths is too long already.
I am sure my colleagues, Senator Rockefeller and Senator Byrd, will agree that the list of West Virginia names is too long as well. Every American watched the terrible events at the Sago mine this past January, when 12 miners were killed.
The Senate should act quickly by passing S. 2803, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, of which, I am happy to say, I am a cosponsor.
This measure, drafted by Senators Enzi and Kennedy, was unanimously reported out of the HELP Committee last week, and the Senate should move expeditiously to pass this legislation. It is the most comprehensive package of miner-safety legislation in a generation. Once it is fully implemented, the brave men and women who descend in the darkness to provide the rest of us with light and heat will have safer working conditions than ever before.
The MINER Act, as it is called, will require mining companies to submit to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, up-to-date emergency preparedness and response plans. The plans must be adapted to each individual mine, and MSHA must review and recertify them every 6 months. As conditions change, so must the response plans in order to best protect our miners.
The bill will require the mining companies to put in place state-of-the-art, two-way wireless communications and electronic tracking systems. Mine rescue team response will be both faster and safer.
The bill will require every miner to have at least 2 hours of oxygen on hand and stores of oxygen to be stashed every 30 minutes along escape routes for evacuating miners. Randal McCloy, Jr., the only miner who survived the Sago tragedy, has reported that at least four of his fellow miners' air packs were faulty, leaving the team without enough air.
Given the fact that three of the miners in the Darby mine died with their breathing masks on, it seems the same thing happened yet again in Kentucky this weekend. That is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.
The bill will give the Secretary of Labor new, stronger enforcement powers to ensure the mines are in compliance. The Secretary will have the authority to shut down a mine for failing to meet the Department's orders, and the bill raises penalties significantly for serious violations.
The bill will also clarify that mine safety rescue teams are not liable for any injuries or deaths that may happen due to rescue activities. This is important because up to now, some mining companies have hesitated to have mine rescue teams for fear of being sued. This provision of the bill will ensure the mining companies have the incentive to put a mine rescue team in place.
Finally, the bill will create grant programs to improve safety training, direct studies of safety techniques, and create an interagency group to facilitate the development of new safety technologies and activities.
I understand this may not be the perfect bill. Not everyone has gotten everything in it they want. But it represents the best, most comprehensive approach to this problem in many years. In fact, both the National Mining Association and the United Mine Workers of America have endorsed it. That ought to tell you something right there. These two groups don't agree on things very often, so I am sure my colleagues can see how their agreement is a signal that the MINER Act is the breakthrough that we have been waiting for.
It is too late for us to do anything for the five Kentucky miners who died this Saturday. Right now the healing for their families and that community is happening in Harlan County. I was touched by an article I read today about a memorial service that took place at the Closplint Church of God in Clospint, KY, just 10 miles down the road from the Darby mine. The Rev. Frank Howard led a prayer for the victims' families. He said, ``We're a coal community, and we need to lift each other up.''
I know the people of Harlan County well. And I am sure of this: They certainly do have the strength to lift each other up in this hour of anguish. And when they need help, they will get it. It will pour in from every corner of Kentucky and beyond.
So we here in the Nation's Capital must also do our part. When this Government acts swiftly and with purpose, we can uplift the fortunes of many who may otherwise be cursed to suffer in despair. By passing this legislation, we can lessen the burden on others who work in the mines and their families by letting them know that we are listening and doing everything we can.
It is my understanding that efforts are underway on both sides to get this legislation cleared, we hope, as soon as tomorrow. But there is one other thing we ought to do. I was looking at the Executive Calendar. I noticed that the MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is without a Director, and not because the HELP Committee has not acted. On March 8, 2006, the HELP Committee reported out an individual from West Virginia to be Director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. His nomination has been languishing on the calendar for 2 1/2 months. I can't think of a worse time to have MSHA without a permanent Director than now. We have had a raft of coal mine deaths this year in West Virginia and Kentucky. With coal production up and coal prices up, it is a virtual certainty that more and more coal is going to be mined. Therefore, more and more miners will be involved in mining coal. We need a permanent Director of MSHA, and we need to pass the legislation I hope we will pass tomorrow.
I know there has been a hold on the MSHA Director nomination on the other side of the aisle. I have been told that there will be an objection yet again today. But I want to plead with those from the other side who may believe that this is not the perfect nominee--he is the nominee, nominated by the President, reported out of the HELP Committee. If he were to be drawn down and this whole process were to be started all over again, we wouldn't have an MSHA Director for months and months into the future. We need a permanent Director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Bearing that in mind, I ask unanimous consent that the Senate now proceed to executive session for the consideration of Calendar No. 553, the nomination of Richard Stickler of West Virginia to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health; provided further that the nomination be confirmed, the motion to reconsider be laid upon the table, the President be immediately notified of the Senate's action, and the Senate resume legislative session.
Before the Chair rules, as I have indicated already, let me say again, this nominee has been reported out of the HELP Committee. He has been on the calendar since March 8 of this year. MSHA is without a permanent Director, and I would hope that my unanimous consent request will not be objected to.
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Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, before yielding the floor, I thank my friend from Alabama. I hope this legislation will clear the Senate sometime tomorrow. I know people are working on both sides of the aisle to get it cleared. It should not be controversial. After all, it came out of committee unanimously. It is supported by the National Mining Association and the UMWA. We need to get that bill passed.
I hope, also, we can get a permanent Director of MSHA. It is without a permanent Director at a very important time in the life and safety of our Nation's coal miners.