HARRISBURG — Gov. Edward G. Rendell signed House Bill 483 to ensure the families of miners involved in an accident are treated with dignity and respect while they await information on their loved ones. The new Mine Families First Act requires that information on rescue efforts and the miners’ conditions be provided to families before the news media, and that their privacy be protected.
“As we learned firsthand at Quecreek, mine accidents can capture the attention of an entire nation, even the world,” said Rendell. “Families are confronted with fear and incredible uncertainty during mine disasters. One of the great lessons learned in Somerset County five years ago is that tending to the needs and concerns of these parents, spouses, children and siblings is extremely important during the rescue operation.”
Rendell praised the actions of former Gov. Mark Schweiker who attended today’s bill signing, along with the emergency response personnel and environmental protection staff that were at the scene during the July 2002 Quecreek Mine rescue. He said their efforts were the model for the Mine Families First Act.
“When a mine rescue is underway, the families of those trapped deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, to have their privacy protected, and to be the first to hear the news about their loved ones,” Rendell said. “Those respectful considerations were given at Quecreek and, from this day forward, this law will ensure those practices will be in place here in Pennsylvania.”
The Mine Families First Act establishes a plan for notifying families about the status of their relatives and the progress of rescue operations; provides for transportation to and from a place for family members to gather; institutes security measures to ensure privacy; and provides counseling through social service organizations.
The Mine Families First Act also establishes an advisory council to assist the Department of Environmental Protection in developing the initial mine emergency response program, and requires interaction with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to make sure procedures are consistent. Each emergency response will be reviewed to see how this program served miners’ families during the incident.
The governor added that while he was pleased to see this lesson from Quecreek implemented as a standard statewide practice, he has been disappointed by the lack of progress toward comprehensive reforms to the state’s Bituminous Mine Safety Act, which was originally written in 1889 and last updated in 1961.
“Quecreek was a near miss tragedy,” said Rendell. “Thankfully, we were able to rescue all nine miners. Two years ago, I proposed legislation that would help avert similar tragedies in the future by updating Pennsylvania’s antiquated mine safety law. But here we are, five years after Quecreek, and still no action on that legislation.
“At my direction, Secretary for Legislative Affairs Steve Crawford personally worked over the last two weeks to restart negotiations between the parties with a goal of bringing legislation to my desk by the end of this year,” the governor said.
Following the recommendations of the Commission on Abandoned Mine Voids and Mine Safety, Rendell has directed DEP to update mine safety procedures within its statutory ability.
DEP has revised mine permitting and inspection procedures so the department’s mine safety experts have a direct role in the decision-making process on permit reviews for any new or expanding mining operation. The agency also revised training protocol for Bureau of Mine Safety staff and mine workers.
The commonwealth invested $415,000 to purchase 48 new breathing units for underground mine rescue teams. The new units replace those purchased more than 30 years ago, and are deployed around the state at DEP’s three mine rescue stations, in Uniontown, Fayette County; Ebensburg, Cambria County; and Tremont, Schuylkill County.
Additionally, DEP launched a major effort to collect and digitize mine maps. To date, DEP has collected 12,000 maps from outside parties and scanned 43,000 maps from its repositories and outside sources
“Our hardworking miners deserve to work in a safe environment that meets the highest standards,” the governor said. “Our mine safety law should allow us to be vigilant and proactive in enforcing the laws. The commonwealth cannot take a back seat when it comes to mine safety.”
Under Rendell’s proposal:
· Mine owners and operators would be primarily responsible for safety compliance, and allow DEP to assess fines and penalties for noncompliance. Currently, only individual certified employees or supervisors, such as foremen, can be held responsible for an accident.
· A mine safety board would be created with the authority to promulgate regulations to keep pace with mine safety technology. The board could act quickly to put in place necessary improvements and precautionary measures as the industry advances.
· Obsolete language in Pennsylvania’s mine safety statutes would be removed, including references to animals and stables in mines.
· The distance from which a bituminous underground operator must conduct advanced drilling when approaching an adjacent mine that may contain water or gas would increase to 500 feet, from 200 feet.
· DEP would be authorized to use emergency contracting provisions to pay for mine rescue and safety activities