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Remarks of Assistant Secretary of Labor Richard Stickler
Mine Safety and Health Administration
2007 PCMIA/PCA Safety and Health Law Seminar
Greensburg, Pennsylvania
June 14, 2007

Good afternoon. Thank you, George, for that kind introduction.

I am very happy to be here with you today to give you an update on the MINER Act and the timely and significant progress MSHA is making in implementation.

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the day that President George W. Bush signed the MINER Act into law.

It is the most important piece of mine safety and health legislation in nearly 30 years, and it has already and will continue to greatly improve the safety and health of America's miners.

We at MSHA are pleased to lead the way in implementing these improvements in mine safety and health.

Keeping miners safe and healthy is MSHA's top priority. We have been working hard over the last year to implement all the requirements in the Act, and I have a good story to tell you today.

I have been involved in the coal mining industry for more than 40 years. My experience includes working shifts in underground coal mines as well as working in and around the mine site and mining community every day.

I know firsthand that every fatality, injury, and illness is devastating for miners, their families, and the communities they live in.

My whole career has been directed at improving mine safety and health, and I am proud to be the leader of MSHA.

I'd like now to go over some of the accomplishments we have made in implementing the MINER Act and give you a status report on what we have left to do.

To date, the provisions of the MINER Act that we have completed include: I'd like now to tell you in greater detail about some of the accomplishments I've just listed.

Even before the MINER Act was passed by Congress and signed by the President, MSHA proactively issued an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on March 9, 2006, which addressed many of the safety requirements that were ultimately included in the MINER Act. This was only the third ETS in the Agency's history.

Those enhanced safety requirements included requiring more SCSRs in underground coal mines, more safety training for underground coal miners, and requiring all mine operators to notify MSHA immediately of serious mine accidents.

Last December, we published in the Federal Register the final rule on Emergency Mine Evacuation which codified the provisions we had instituted in the ETS. The rule was effective immediately.

In addition to the enhanced safety requirements we required under the ETS, the final rule requires mine operators to provide increased capability for mine emergency response and evacuation; includes additional requirements for SCSRs and their storage; includes improved training and escape drills; lifelines, tethers, and multi-gas detectors; and accident notification.

While the MINER Act did not require operators to provide multi-gas detectors to miners working alone and to each group of miners, we decided to go beyond the MINER Act and require them.

In the event of a mine emergency, we believe these detectors will help miners know if there are toxic gases in the mine atmosphere.

MSHA has also developed an SCSR database to help us locate SCSRs affected by future recalls or other approval actions. It will also help our enforcement personnel inspect the SCSRs at the mines by cross checking reported inventories with units in use.

In addition, NIOSH and MSHA will use this database to randomly select and collect SCSRs deployed at mines for testing in their Long Term Field Evaluation Program.

An improved penalty structure is another part of the MINER Act requirements we have put into place.

Right after the President signed the MINER Act, MSHA immediately issued policies to propose minimum penalties for immediate accident notification and unwarrantable failure violations.

On March 22 of this year, we published a final rule that included those minimum penalties and that increased civil penalty amounts for other categories of mine safety and health violations; the rule became effective on April 23.

The new penalty structure: I believe that this increased penalty structure will provide a greater incentive for operators to follow the law and improve mine safety and health.

Emergency plans are another very important part of the MINER Act.

The Act requires underground coal mine operators to develop and adopt written Emergency Response Plans (ERPs) specific to the mines they operate. Operators were required to submit plans by August 14, 2006. Those that did not submit their plans by the deadline were issued citations by MSHA enforcement personnel.

In February of this year, MSHA issued a Program Information Bulletin (PIB) to provide guidance to mine operators about acceptable quantities and delivery methods for breathable air in underground coal mines. You can find the PIB and related materials on our website - I urge you to review it if you have not already.

Once the breathable air guidance was issued, operators were required to submit revised plans indicating how breathable air will be provided by March 12. As of June 7, 388 out of 465 active (producing) underground coal mines have submitted ERPs that have been fully approved, and another 77 have been partially approved. Two are at impasse.

In addition to breathable air, the ERPs must address post-accident communications and tracking, lifelines, training, and local coordination. We are ensuring that the plans are reviewed in a timely manner, approved, and implemented for all underground coal mines as specified in the Act.

We take the requirement for ERPs very seriously. We have issued two citations to mines in District 2 (Emerald and Cumberland, of Foundation Coal - Coal recommends you not mention names) for failure to develop a fully-compliant ERP. We have approved all portions of the ERPs of these two mines, with the exception of the provision in the Post-accident Breathable Air portion of the ERP. MSHA and the operators are in dispute concerning what period of time is reasonable for the operator to take actions necessary to implement the post-accident breathable air portion of its ERP. This case is currently before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission under the ERP Dispute Resolution Process.

While the MINER Act requirement for emergency response plans only applies to underground coal mines, I would like to say that operators of other types of mines can, on their own initiative, develop such a plan for their mines.

Having an emergency evacuation plan and Standard Operating Procedures for emergencies in place can mean the difference between life and death in a mine emergency.

An ounce of prevention and a few telephone numbers can make all the difference.

The MINER Act requirement for post-accident communications and tracking in underground coal mines is also very important. Operators are required to adopt two-way wireless communications and electronic tracking systems by June 2009.

We are working hard on this requirement. Since January 2006, we have approved 6 new communication/tracking devices and approved 15 modifications to previously-approved systems.

As of June 1, we have performed or witnessed field testing of 21 communication and/or tracking systems.

We have met with representatives from 54 communication and tracking system companies. And we have communicated with various vendors regarding 141 proposed designs for mine communication and/or tracking systems, including exchanging information with DOD, NASA and the Department of Energy.

We continue to work with the NIOSH Emergency Communication and Testing Partnership to arrange for demonstrations of additional systems. We are also assisting NIOSH in the review of documentation received in response to the Requests for Proposals (RFPs).

However, as of today, there is no wireless tracking or communications system that meets the intent of the MINER Act.

This is a very important part of the MINER Act and you can review the latest updates on our search for wireless communications and electronic tracking devices on our website.

Communication with the families at a mine emergency is also very important.

The MSHA Family Liaison Policy has been put into place to provide for an MSHA liaison to be with families at the site of a mine accident where miners are unaccounted for or there are multiple fatalities.

Fourteen designated family liaison MSHA personnel have completed their initial training sessions. The National Transportation Safety Board and the American Red Cross have helped train these individuals.

Three of these MSHA family liaisons were present in Barton, Maryland, to be with the families of the miners during the recent accident at Tri-Star Mining Company.

Speaking of the sad subject of accidents, I want to briefly touch on the tragedies that happened last year and some of the things that we have learned from them.

In March and April, MSHA released the results of its investigations of the Aracoma Alma No. 1 and Darby mining accidents of last year. MSHA released the results of the Sago investigation in May.

The internal MSHA reports evaluating MSHA's activities surrounding the Aracoma, Darby, and Sago disasters will be released soon. In these reports, MSHA will review its policies and practices and develop critical action plans to address the identified shortcomings.

Based in part on the accident investigation reports of the Sago and Darby mine explosions, we concluded that immediate action was necessary to provide additional protections for our nation's underground coal miners

That is why, for only the fourth time in the history of the Mine Act, MSHA issued an ETS to strengthen the design, construction, maintenance and repair of seals, as well as requirements for sampling and controlling atmospheres behind seals.

The ETS became effective on May 22, and exceeds by seven months the deadline established under the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006.

The MINER Act requires MSHA to issue mandatory heath and safety standards relating to the sealing of abandoned areas in underground coal mines.

The MINER Act requires the health and safety standards to "provide for an increase in the 20 psi standard currently set forth in section 75.335(a)(2) of title 30, Code of Federal Regulations."

For detailed information on the seal requirements seals designs, templates, and answers to questions on seals, please visit our website or call your local MSHA office.

We continue to work on implementing other parts of the MINER Act.

With regard to mine rescue teams, the MINER Act requires the Department of Labor to issue by December 2007 regulations to address improved training, certification, availability, and composition requirements for underground coal mine rescue teams. We are on track to meet the deadline for this rule.

MSHA was also required by the MINER Act to establish a Technical Study Panel on Belt Air that will "provide independent scientific and engineering review and recommendations with respect to the utilization of belt air and the composition and fire retardant properties of belt materials in underground coal mining."

The first two meetings of the Technical Study Panel have already taken place - the first on January 9-10 and the other on March 28-30 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The third meeting was held May 16-17 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a fourth is scheduled for June 20-22 in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Panel's report is due before the end of the year. Members of the Panel are prominent and experienced mine safety and health professionals. As mandated in the MINER Act, two of the Panel members were appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services, two by the Department of Labor, and two members were appointed by Congress.

In addition to the MINER Act, we are continuing with the other business of the agency - enforcement, training, recruitment, to name a few.

In an important development that we announced yesterday, MSHA has created an Office of Accountability to provide oversight and examination of existing systems within the agency.

In the wake of last year's mining disasters, MSHA identified a number of issues pointing to inconsistencies in our enforcement programs.

This new office will look closely at any existing irregularities or deficiencies and make recommendations on ways to improve the way we enforce safety and health laws in our nation's mines

It will carry out comprehensive internal audits of MSHA to ensure the agency is adhering to federal regulations, as well as internal rules, policies and procedures.

The work produced by the Office of Accountability will undoubtedly have profound influence on the course of MSHA programs and operations, achievement of this agency's goals and objectives, and MSHA policies that affect the mining industry nationwide.

On hiring, last year, Congress provided for the hiring of 170 new coal enforcement personnel under an emergency supplemental appropriations act. We are pressing ahead with the recruitment, training and deployment of these additional coal mine enforcement personnel.

To date, 125 additional coal mine enforcement personnel have been hired.

While MSHA faces significant challenges in both replacing the enforcement personnel who will likely retire this year and expanding our enforcement ranks, I am very confident that we are well on track to meet our goal of hiring 170 net new personnel.

We are continuing our recruitment drives in local communities around the country - you may have seen some information about those recruitment opportunities nearby here in Pennsylvania!

We have also hired additional staff at our Mine Health and Safety Academy to ensure that we can properly and efficiently train these new inspectors and get them out to the job sites where they will make a difference.

I believe this training is the best, most effective program MSHA has ever had and will enable these new inspectors to meet today's challenges.

In the end, I strongly believe the increased presence of MSHA enforcement staff at the job sites will have a positive impact on mine safety and health.

We are also continuing our active enforcement of the law.

We will use all of the tools available to achieve our goal of safer and healthier mines, including tough enforcement, education and training, and technology.

We will be particularly aggressive with those mine operators who habitually violate MSHA standards and seem to view penalties as just another cost of doing business.

In order to better identify these repeat violators, MSHA is developing a database to provide a more objective analysis of accident trends and enforcement results. MSHA will use the data to target operators who refuse to follow the mine safety and health laws and regulations.

One particular tool - pattern of violations - has been in MSHA's arsenal for over 30 years but we have never used it.

The Mine Act authorizes MSHA to issue a withdrawal order under certain conditions disclosed by an inspection conducted within 90 days after a notice that the mine operator has a pattern of violations of mandatory standards that could have significantly and substantially contributed to mine hazards.

We have a regulation that provides for a letter warning mine operators that they have a potential pattern of violations before the statutory notice is issued. While MSHA has issued such letters, it has never proceeded to issue the statutory notice.

MSHA has recently revised its criteria to identify mines that may have a pattern of violations. Once these new criteria are in place, we will issue pattern of violations notices and orders where warranted.

This measure is tough, but I believe it is also necessary in instances where the safety of miners is routinely jeopardized.

As I have said before, the safety and health of miners is MSHA's top priority. It should be everyone's top priority.

We will also continue to conduct focused inspections on known hazards, such as the program we recently completed on retreat mining this past February and March in Coal District 4 in Southern West Virginia, District 5 in Virginia, and Districts 6 and 7 in Kentucky.

During those campaigns, we examined examine roof control plans and roof support methods. In District 4 alone, MSHA issued 234 citations and orders during a two-week period.

In District 6, MSHA conducted a special initiative which targeted all mines in the district that are conducting or will conduct retreat mining.

We wanted to observe retreat mining practices and make sure that adequate safety precautions for retreat mining were included in each mine's roof control plan.

Of the 33 mines involved in the initiative, 21 were verified to have adequate safety precautions for retreat mining, and 12 were required to provide additional safety precautions.

In February, MSHA also conducted a nationwide targeted Special Health Emphasis enforcement program to make sure operators were complying with the applicable respirable dust standard at specific mines during normal production cycles.

Inspectors also looked at whether ventilation and dust control parameters were adequate and effective in protecting miners' health at all times.

Over 1,130 dust samples were collected at 61 selected underground coal mines in all eleven coal districts.

Thirty-two citations and one unwarrantable failure order for ventilation plan violations were issued during the health inspections, two citations were issued for excessive dust, and 44% of the enforcement actions were designated as Significant & Substantial (S&S).

We will conduct more evaluations to identify good and bad ventilation plans and practices and work to get operators in compliance.

And we continue outreach efforts to make operators and miners aware of accident trends and safety and health hazard alerts.

We are now conducting outreach and education campaigns on black lung, an ongoing initiative on rising fatalities in metal and nonmetal mines called "Stop the Fatalities," and our annual roof control campaign called PROP, which we just started at the beginning of this month.

As we move through the year, we will continue to conduct seasonal outreach campaigns as well, like Winter Alert and Spring Thaw, which raise awareness of seasonal hazards associated with mining during different times of the year.

Today, as you can see, every single person at MSHA remains focused on our core mission: to improve the safety and health of America's miners and to work toward the day when every miner goes home safe and healthy to family and friends, after every shift of every day.

However, MSHA cannot do this alone.

The entire mining community - mine operators and miners included - must also do their part to improve mine health and safety.

Together MSHA, mine operators and miners can achieve this important goal.

Thank you for inviting me here today. I'll briefly answer any questions you have.