PA governor signs Mine Families First Act

THE Mine Families First Act, meant to keep loved ones informed on rescue efforts prior to the media in the event of an incident, was signed by Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell late last week.
PA governor signs Mine Families First Act PA governor signs Mine Families First Act PA governor signs Mine Families First Act PA governor signs Mine Families First Act PA governor signs Mine Families First Act

Pennsylvania’s Governor, Edward Rendell

Donna Schmidt

In addition to communication, the legislation (House Bill 483) also protects the privacy of families in such an event, according to a statement from the governor's office.

"As we learned firsthand at Quecreek, mine accidents can capture the attention of an entire nation, even the world," he said.

"Families are confronted with fear and incredible uncertainty during mine disasters [and] one of the great lessons learned in Somerset County five years ago is that tending to the needs and concerns of these parents, spouses, children and siblings is extremely important during the rescue operation."

The bill was modelled after the behaviour of mine rescue, emergency response and environmental protection workers during the Quecreek accident that left nine miners trapped for days until a capsule could be lowered to bring them to the surface.

Rendell was also joined at the signing by former governor Mark Schweiker, who was an integral part of the incident with regard to keeping families informed and aiding with rescue efforts and organisation.

Included in the legislation is the establishment of a committee to aid the state's Department of Environmental Protection in compiling an "initial mine emergency response program" while making consistent communication with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency a requirement. Each event's response will be reviewed for efficiency, the office noted.

Additionally, the Act allows for a plan for family notification and transportation to and from a gathering place where loved ones and friends can stay together, as well as counselling by social services organisations.

"When a mine rescue is underway, the families of those trapped deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, to have their privacy protected, and to be the first to hear the news about their loved ones," Rendell noted.

"Those respectful considerations were given at Quecreek and, from this day forward, this law will ensure those practices will be in place here in Pennsylvania."

Making changes

While Quecreek stands as a positive lesson for mine emergency response for operations everywhere, Rendell said he was disappointed with progress made to additions to Pennsylvania's Bituminous Mine Safety Act, written in 1889 and last updated in 1961.

"Two years ago, I proposed legislation that would help avert similar tragedies [to Quecreek] in the future by updating Pennsylvania's antiquated mine safety law. But here we are, five years after Quecreek, and still no action on that legislation," Rendell said.

"At my direction, Secretary for Legislative Affairs Steve Crawford personally worked over the last two weeks to restart negotiations between the parties with a goal of bringing legislation to my desk by the end of this year."

Also part of Rendell's proposal:

Liability for safety compliance to be in the hands of mine owners and operators (currently, only individual certified employees or supervisors, such as foremen, can be held responsible);

Jurisdiction and authority to the DEP to assess fines and penalties for compliance violations;

The establishment of a mine safety board to keep mine safety regulations on the cutting edge of technology;

The abolishment of "obsolete language" from the state's regulations, such as references to animals in mines;

Advance drilling distance laws lengthened from 200ft to 500ft when an operator is nearing an adjacent mine that could contain water or gas; and

Authorisation for the DEP to use "emergency contracting provisions" to fund projects related to mine rescue and safety.

In the meantime, he has ordered the state's Department of Environmental Protection to examine and update its processes with regards to mine safety. To date, it has made amendments to its mine permitting and inspection protocols and has updated the Bureau of Mine Safety staff's training procedures.

Rendell said the department has also purchased 48 new breathing units for the state's rescue teams in Uniontown, Ebensburg and Treemont at a cost of $US415,000 - the units in use previously dated back more than 30 years.

A significant project to digitise maps is underway as well, with the DEP noting it has collected 12,000 maps from outside parties and scanned 43,000 maps from its repositories and outside sources.

"Our hardworking miners deserve to work in a safe environment that meets the highest standards," Rendell said.

"Our mine safety law should allow us to be vigilant and proactive in enforcing the laws.

"The commonwealth cannot take a back seat when it comes to mine safety."