Senate Panel Investigates Mine Safety Options

Technology that might help save trapped miners was shown off on Capitol Hill Wednesday, including text-messaging systems and tracking devices that are not widely used in U.S. mines.

Lawmakers also got a look at the one-hour oxygen packs miners do rely on. There was broad agreement that the government ought to require operators to store extra oxygen in mines or outfit miners with longer-lasting packs.

"An hour just seems like such a short amount of time," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

It took rescuers more than 40 hours to bring the West Virginia Sago Mine victims to the surface following the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, which did not participate in Wednesday's hearing, has announced a temporary emergency rule that would require coal mine operators to provide miners with extra air packs.

Several manufacturers of the safety equipment said there ought to be regulations clarifying what new technology should be used. They also said more money should be spent on research and development.

"Who's gonna pay for it?" asked Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Bruce Watzman, the top safety expert at the National Mining Association, said his trade group wants the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to boost its spending on research and development of mine safety equipment. The roughly $30 million the agency spends annually on the effort is not enough, he said.

Jeffrey Kohler, a NIOSH mining expert, was supposed to testify at the hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. However, Kohler said he was told at the last minute he would not be allowed to speak.

Bill Hall, a spokesman for the Health and Human ServicesDepartment, which oversees NIOSH, said the agency does not allow officials to sit on congressional panels with private-sector witnesses.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chaired the hearing and said legislative action would follow. "This is not a one-day hearing for the purpose of saying we did it," he said.

But Isakson cautioned his colleagues to proceed carefully. "As legislators responding to a crisis, we want to do whatever we can do to make mining safer, but we want to do it in an informed way and not a reactionary way," he said.