In the wake of the Jan. 2 Sago Mine disaster and last weekâ€™s fire at the Aracoma Mine, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and other senators asked tough questions of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials and coal industry leaders.
MSHA officials had few answers, and two top agency officials â€” acting administrator David Dye and coal chief Ray McKinney â€” drew criticism for leaving before the hearing ended.
Agency officials and coal industry representatives also did not offer their complete support for new mine rescue technologies being pushed in West Virginia by Gov. Joe Manchin.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., indicated that he would pursue legislation to increase the punishment for mine safety violations and ask federal auditors to update a 2003 review that found widespread problems in MSHA enforcement practices.
Specter also said he would consider a measure to prohibit coal company lawyers from sitting in on private miner interviews during accident investigations.
Mondayâ€™s hearing before a budget subcommittee was the first in what is expected to be a series of congressional mine safety hearings this year.
Specter noted that while MSHAâ€™s budget has increased by 42 percent over the past decade, that jump was not enough to keep pace with inflation. MSHA has eliminated about 183 positions over that period, Specter said.
Byrd said he is concerned that budget cuts and â€œcronyismâ€ between MSHA and the mining industry played a role in the recent accidents.
Dye responded, â€œThere is no cronyism between me and anyone in the industry.â€
Dye has been acting MSHA chief since Dave D. Lauriski left the agency shortly after the November 2004 election. Lauriski was a 30-year coal executive, and President Bush has nominated another former industry official, Richard Stickler, to take his place.
Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief advising Manchin on the Sago investigation, briefed lawmakers on proposals for West Virginia to require additional oxygen supplies for miners, and equip all miners with wireless communications devices and location trackers.
Dye was skeptical, saying the communications devices have â€œreliability issues.â€ Dye added that commercial cell phones and similar devices couldnâ€™t be used in underground mines. Any new equipment would have to be carefully tested to ensure it will not spark fires or explosions, he said.
â€œYou canâ€™t use off-the-shelf technologies,â€ Dye said. â€œTheyâ€™ll have to be virtually redesigned so they wonâ€™t do that.â€
But McAteer said the devices are already being used in some U.S. mines and in many operations in other countries.
McAteer added, â€œIt is very clear that the nation has not invested as much money and energy in the cause of coal mine safety as it has in the pursuit of coal production and profits.â€