WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted yesterday to require safety upgrades at underground coal mines following fatal accidents in Kentucky and West Virginia, and House lawmakers pledged to act soon.
The measure would require coal mine operators to keep more emergency air supplies underground and to better seal off abandoned sections of mines.
Lawmakers said changes must be made following Saturday's explosion at a southeastern Kentucky mine that left five people dead. The accident occurred just a few months after a pair of accidents at West Virginia mines killed 14 people.
In all, 32 coal miners have been killed on the job so far this year. That is up from 22 killed throughout 2005, according the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
``Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation, and those who take these risks deserve to be as safe and healthy as possible," said Senator Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who wrote the legislation with Senator Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, and Senators Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, who are West Virginia Democrats.
The bill, which was approved on a voice vote, would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of one as under the current policy. It also would require mine operators to store extra oxygen packs along escape routes and to perform checks on the devices to ensure they work.
The mine agency recently issued a temporary rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen, but miners have been pressing Congress to enact a permanent solution.
Three of those killed in Saturday's blast survived the initial explosion but died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to preliminary tests. Eleven of the miners killed at the Sago mine also died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Senate bill also would require the strengthening of seals for abandoned sections of mines.
Traditionally, concrete blocks have been used as seals, but nontraditional materials also have been allowed since the 1990s. The nontraditional seals were used at the Darby mine in Kentucky and the Sago mine in West Virginia.
Rescuers at the scene of the Kentucky accident reported that the seals, similar to plastic foam, did not withstand the blast. The accident at the Sago mine is believed to have occurred in an abandoned section of the mine that was sealed.
The United Mine Workers of America and the industry-backed National Mining Association have endorsed the Senate bill.
``This legislation is a step in the right direction, and I urge the House to pass it as soon as possible and President Bush to sign it into law without delay," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in a statement.
A bill that mirrors the Senate legislation has been introduced in the House.
However, Representative Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican who chairs a committee that oversees mine safety, said he plans to introduce a measure tomorrow that is similar to the Senate bill but includes a handful of additional provisions. Democrats on that committee also have introduced a mine safety bill.