MINE IMPROVEMENT AND NEW EMERGENCY RESPONSE ACT OF 2006 -- (Senate - May 24, 2006)
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to be able to proceed for just 2 minutes on this issue.
The PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I welcome the fact that the Senator from Kentucky has advanced this issue this morning and ensured that the legislation was going to be passed. I wish to pay tribute to my chairman, Senator Enzi. Within hours of the Sago mine disaster, he notified our committee that we would go as a committee down to visit the Sago mine. We spent hours with the families of Sago, came back immediately, had an informal hearing to get early reactions and responses about things that could be done immediately, and then structured a whole series of hearings. We had very extensive markups on those hearings.
This legislation has the strong support of the families and the strong support of the mine workers. I think it is a very clear indication that this Senate gives the highest possible priority to the workers and their families and safety and security.
We believe strongly that we should be tireless in pursuing new technologies which will provide additional kinds of safety and security to these miners. That process is outlined in the legislation. But this is a very clear message to the families that they are perhaps in the most dangerous undertaking which is absolutely essential in providing energy for our country. These are extraordinarily heroic men and women who work the mines. This Senate has responded, and we will respond to ensure to the extent legislatively we can that they will have safe and secure jobs.
I thank the Senator. I am grateful for the leadership of Senator Enzi.
Finally, during all of this period, we have been fortunate to have the tireless leadership of Senator Robert Byrd and JAY ROCKEFELLER. JAY ROCKEFELLER is recovering from a difficult operation, but he has been in constant touch with me and members of the committee and is following this legislation. Senator Byrd appeared before our committee, sat through the hearings, and has been instrumental in terms of developing the legislation and pressing and pushing us forward to make sure it is achieved.
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Mr. KENNEDY. I am pleased that the Senate has passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act today, and I commend Chairman Enzi, Senator Isakson, and Senator Murray for their dedication in pursuing these safety protections. I also commend Senator Byrd and Senator Rockefeller, who have been tireless in insisting on improvements in mine safety. This bill is the most significant improvement in mine safety by Congress in a generation.
Today's action was clearly necessary. The year began with the shocking tragedies at the Sago and Alma mines in West Virginia, where 14 coal miners were killed. Tragedy struck again last weekend in Kentucky, where five coal miners were killed at the Darby mine in Harlan County.
We will learn more in the weeks ahead from the ongoing investigations of these disasters. But many lessons are already painfully clear. The miners who died could have survived with adequate oxygen. But, their self-rescue units didn't work, and they had to share precious oxygen with each other.
They also had no realistic way to let rescuers outside know where they were. At Sago, they resorted to banging on pipes with sledge hammers, wasting precious energy and oxygen. This should never have happened and we need to be sure that it doesn't happen again.
The bill requires every company to have a comprehensive emergency response plan, so that companies and miners will know ahead of time how to respond. The bill sets stronger minimum safety standards for oxygen supplies, communications, tracking, lifelines, and training, and also requires companies to continuously reevaluate the safety of their mines. They must adapt their safety response plans to changes in their mining operations and advances in mine safety technology. Safety must no longer be a topic that companies address only in the wake of a disaster or a government directive. Plans to improve safety must be an enforceable day-to-day obligation of every mining operation.
As we saw at Sago and Darby, the time to determine whether a mine's oxygen supply is reliable can't just be after a tragedy. To address the recurring problems with oxygen supplies, the bill requires companies to provide at least two hours of oxygen for every miner, plus additional oxygen along evacuation routes and for trapped miners awaiting rescue. Companies will be required to inspect and replace these units regularly, so that no miner has an oxygen pack that doesn't work.
All mines will be required to have back-up telephone lines immediately available, and to adopt two-way wireless communications and electronic tracking systems as soon as possible. They will also have to install fire-resistant lifelines, to show miners to the best way out in an emergency.
One of the most moving aspects of the Sago and Alma response was the outpouring of support from other miners around the country. They wanted to do everything they could to rescue their brothers and sisters trapped underground. This bill guarantees that every mine in the country will have a person on staff who knows the mine and is trained in emergency response. It strengthens requirements for training mine rescue teams. The teams will practice in the mines they monitor, so that the first time they go into a mine will not be during an emergency.
The bill also reduces the time required for a rescue team to reach a mine to one hour from the current two hours. By providing good Samaritan-type liability protection for mine rescue team members and their regular employers, this bill will encourage more miners to participate in mine rescue teams and more employers to support them.
Even if we don't know why the seal at Sago failed, we know that it did. The initial reports from Darby suggest that a seal also failed there. We don't need another tragedy caused by a failed seal to know that the standard for seals must be improved. Our standards for these protective barriers lag far behind other developed nations. That is why this bill requires the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue a new regulation in 18 months to improve these standards.
We also need greater incentives to prevent accidents from happening. Too many mining companies have been paying fines that cost less than parking tickets. Under this bill, companies can no longer treat violations of health and safety laws as a cost of doing business. We impose substantial new minimum penalties on companies that put miners at risk and do not take their obligation seriously to provide a safe workplace. These new penalties escalate when companies continue to ignore their safety obligations. The bill also makes clear that MSHA has the authority to shut down a mine that refuses to pay its fines.
Research is an important part of safety. The Navy has technologies to communicate with submarines on the bottom of the ocean. NASA can talk to people on the Moon. It is time to bring mine safety technology into the 21st century too. Our bill creates an interagency task force so that NIOSH will have the benefit of the advances made by other industries and agencies. It also creates two competitive grant programs: one to encourage the development and manufacture of mine safety equipment that the private sector might not otherwise find economically viable, and another to educate and train employers and miners to better identify, avoid, and prevent unsafe working conditions.
This bill is an important step in strengthening the response to mine emergencies. But there is more to be done. We have seen miners in other countries survive because of requirements that their mines have refuge chambers. Our bill requires MSHA and NIOSH to test refuge chambers to see if they should be used here to protect miners in a fire or explosion. It also addresses safety issues raised by ventilating mines with belt air, particularly the problem of fires on mine conveyor belts. The bill requires the Secretary of Labor to report to us on these problems, and I commend Senator Enzi and Senator Isakson for agreeing to work together and to hold hearings on these critical issues in the future.
We can't bring back the brave miners who have died this year. Today, however, we honor their memory by passing this legislation and we will honor them even more by following through to see that it is implemented as effectively as possible to make our mines safer.
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