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Senate passes PA mine safety bill

PENNSYLVANIA miners and supporters marked the first step to a regulatory milestone Tuesday when the Senate passed Bill 949, which updates mine safety language last revised 47 years ago.

Donna Schmidt
Senate passes PA mine safety bill

The proposal was passed unanimously, which state Department of Environmental Protection secretary Kathleen McGinty said was great news for the industry in Pennsylvania.

"Today's committee vote marks a monumental first step in updating an antiquated law and better protecting Pennsylvania's miners," McGinty said.

"It's been more than 47 years since the state's deep mine safety law has been updated, but with the support this bill enjoys across the spectrum from the administration and legislature, to the labor unions and coal companies we're optimistic that it will move swiftly to the Governor's desk."

Prior to an update in 1961, Pennsylvania's laws dated back to about 1870.

Among the areas of change included in SB 949 is the creation of a seven-member Board of Coal Mine Safety chaired by the DEP's secretary that would provide opportunity for equal representation by mine owners and workers.

"The board will have the authority to write new mine safety regulations something the department is currently unable to do through existing statute," she said.

McGinty expressed the need for the state to "use 21st century technology" in its effort to ensure miner safety through the group, something also not possible under current language.

"We shouldn't be hampered by a 19th century law. This board will enable the department to keep pace with new developments and to ensure the latest technology is at work for a safe environment underground."

The proposal, if approved as legislation, would also secure safety initiatives that were initially enacted administratively by Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell after the Quecreek mine accident of 2002.

Included in Rendell's push:

A requirement of safety officials to examine all mine permit applications with the option to say "no" if unsafe conditions are believed to exist;

The placement of new regulations to "validate and verify" all mine maps for underground mines before production can commence;

Increase planned mining and abandoned mining distances from 200 to 500 feet.

"We must do all we can to make sure every miner returns safely home to his or her family at the end of a shift, and this legislation will help to accomplish that," said McGinty.

In an interview with International Longwall News, Pennsylvania Coal Association president George Ellis said the group, more than 80 member companies strong representing the bituminous coal sector in the state, said the language of the proposal was not the same as how the association would have written it. However, it realized that negotiations had been a part of where it is now.

"Based on reaction received...we feel confident we will end up supporting the bill."

An assistant for state governor Rendell said the proposal has a bright future.

"If the final product reflects the understanding reached and contains no surprises, the governor will sign the bill," Chuck Ardo told local media.

The bill was sponsored by state senator Richard Kasunic, who named the legislation "949" as a symbolic gesture to then-governor Schweiker's exclamation "Nine for nine!" after the all miners at Quecreek were rescued alive in July 2002.

There have been seven deaths in Pennsylvania since that incident.

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