WASHINGTON – The Senate took a step Wednesday toward shoring up safety at underground coal mines following a spate of accidents at mines in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Senators passed legislation that requires coal operators to stash more air supplies underground, mandates that emergency rescue teams be within an hour of mines and says that coal companies have to invest in communications and tracking devices.
The Senate acted just a few days after a weekend blast at an eastern Kentucky mine that left five people dead.
In January, an accident at West Virginia's Sago mine killed 12 people. It was followed a few weeks later by a fire that killed two people at another West Virginia mine.
In all, 32 coal miners have been killed on the job so far this year. That is up from 22 killed throughout 2005, according the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"We need to move quickly, because we've had a very unfortunate spike in fatalities this year," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The Senate bill, which was approved on an unrecorded voice vote, would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of one as under the current policy. It also would require mine operators to store extra oxygen packs along escape routes.
The federal mine agency recently issued a temporary rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen, but miners have been pressing Congress to enact a permanent solution.
Three of those killed in Saturday's blast survived the initial blast but died of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to preliminary tests. Eleven of the miners killed at the Sago mine also died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Senate bill also would require the strengthening of seals for abandoned sections of mines.
Rescuers at the scene of the Darby mine accident in Kentucky reported that the seals, similar to plastic foam, did not withstand the blast. The Jan. 2 accident at the Sago mine is believed to have occurred in an abandoned section of the mine that was sealed off.
Several bills to impose new safety requirements on the mining industry have been introduced in the House. One of those mirrors the Senate bill.
Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents the eastern Kentucky community where Saturday's blast occurred, said a growing coalition of lawmakers is pushing for immediate passage of the legislation in the House.
"It's a comprehensive mine safety bill that I think is very good," Rogers said, noting that it had the support of both the mining industry and miners' advocates.