Two years ago, the U.S. Congress enacted the MINER Act in response to the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, which trapped 13 miners, killing 12 of them.

Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler, Assistant Labor Secretary, told reporters Monday that he considered the act a success in improving mine safety, which has set an unprecedented pace in the publication of six final rules in only 18 months.

The agency has proposed four additional rules including one published Monday in the Federal Register proposing requirements for refuge alternatives in underground coal mines, and the training of miners in their use.

Since the enactment of the MINER Act, Stickler noted that mine operators have submitted emergency response plans for all underground coal mines in the United States.

In the past 18 months, the agency has issued 700 violations relative to MINER Act non-compliance of which 50 are classified as flagrant violations-some carrying a maximum penalty of $220,000, he said. However, a number of those violations are now tied up in appeals and challenges by mining companies.  As a result, the number of attorneys in the solicitor's office has been increased to deal with those appeals, Stickler explained.

Meanwhile, 41 MSHA employees have been trained by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Red Cross as family liaisons to assist miners' families during incidents. 

Stickler said 300 coal mine enforcement personnel, along with 100 metal and non-metal mine inspectors have been hired and have 12 to 18 months of underground training. Another 75 trainees are expected to graduate this summer. However, some of these trainees will also be used to fill vacancies in specialists' positions. In addition, $10 million has been budgeted by the Bush Administration for overtime and travel expenses to expedite mine inspections.

In addition, MSHA has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Management to assist in mine safety enforcement, according to Stickler.

In January, the House approved a Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, S-MINER, which mandates mines to have better communications equipment now instead of by 2009 as called for in the original MINER Act. Nevertheless, Stickler explained some of the required communications still do not exist. However, he added, MSHA is working with NIOSH to determine what best available communications technology for underground coal mines is.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, told the Register-Herald newspaper that MINER Act has both a positive and a negative side. Since the law was enacted coal miners and their families have questioned the slowness in achieving reforms in underground mines, he noted, adding some workers still not have adequate emergency breathing devices.

We have to stay tough when it comes to mine safety, Byrd said. Mines are no place for flinty regulation enforcement. We have seen the consequences of inaction.

We painfully relearned many lessons from the tragedies at Sago and Alma. But the most important lesson is that we cannot protect the lives of our coal miners on the cheap, Byrd told the Register-Herald.

Stickler admitted to reporters Monday, however, that no provisions in the MINER Act would directly have prevented a Crandall Canyon disaster in Utah.

In a statement last month, United Mine Workers of America International Cecil Roberts declared, Further congressional action to prevent tragedies like Crandall Canyon from happening is needed, and needed now. Rep. [George] Miller and others in the House have taken the first step by passing the Supplemental MINER - or S-MINER - Act. I urge the Senate to take up this critical legislation without delay, so that America's miners will at least have some sense that their government does, in fact, care about whether they live or die.