Bush returns mine safety to agenda

? The Bush administration is reviewing safety equipment used in the nation’s mines after previously scrapping similar initiatives started by the Clinton administration.

The agency that oversees coal mine safety is seeking public input on how to better supply miners and rescuers with equipment such as breathing apparatus and communications devices, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

In recent years, the Mine Safety and Health Administration pulled Clinton-era initiatives examining safety equipment and mine rescue operations off its regulatory agenda, a semiannual document that outlines what agencies are working on.

Key among the items withdrawn were those dealing with oxygen packs that miners carry and the ability of mine rescue teams to do their jobs.

Such issues will be re-examined, according to the documents, which noted that the Sago Mine accident in West Virginia “underscored the vital role that mine rescue operations play in response to catastrophic mine incidents.”

In withdrawing the items during its first term, the Bush administration cited changing priorities and resource concerns.

“Work was in progress to implement some of these protections,” Joe Main, who recently retired as the top safety expert at the United Mine Workers union, said Saturday.

Main welcomed the new study but said it fell short. He said the agency should impose new emergency rules that could go into effect quickly, and he said Congress ought to pass legislation establishing new safety standards as it did following the 1968 mine explosion in Farmington, W.Va., that killed 78 miners.

“Study all you want,” Main said. “That’s good. That’s healthy, but don’t preclude action with study.”

One of the items withdrawn called for a review of oxygen units miners are required to wear or keep within 25 feet of their work area.

Main said the goal was to eliminate defects, improve inspections of the air packs and ensure that the machines were actually providing the one hour’s worth of air that is required. The union also wanted extra units stored in the mines. The review will examine those issues.

Jeffery Kravitz, a safety specialist at the Mine Safety and Health Administration who coordinates the agency’s rescue teams, said the federal government hasn’t been ignoring the issue.

Kravitz said the Labor Department agency, along with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, had held numerous workshops to identify what technology might be available or developed to provide miners with longer-lasting oxygen packs that are light enough to wear.