House approves mine safety bill

WASHINGTON — Back at work following a holiday recess, the House last week passed a bill that would toughen rules for mining safety.

Lawmakers voted 214-199 to require mine operators to install wireless communications and tracking equipment within 15 months.

The bill also aims to protect miners’ health by cutting in half the allowable exposures to coal dust that causes black lung disease.

It also would increase penalties for mine operators that violate safety laws, and give the government powers to shut down mines that do not address problems quickly.

The bill was given momentum by the collapse in August of the Crandall Canyon coal mine in Utah that killed six miners and three rescue workers.

Among its provisions, the bill would increase oversight of dangerous “retreat mining” that was practiced at the Utah mine. After workers exhaust an underground deposit, they pull out the pillars holding up mine chambers as they retreat and pluck whatever coal can be gathered before the roof collapses.

The Bush administration and the mining industry fought the bill, saying the reforms would be costly and would jeopardize safety improvements that were being put in place after Congress passed a comprehensive mine safety bill 18 months ago.

Among other things, that bill would give companies three years to upgrade wireless communications and underground tracking devices.

The bill has not yet been approved in the Senate.

Reps. Dean Heller and Jon Porter, both R-Nev., voted against the mining safety bill.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., did not vote.


The House reworked a defense authorization bill rather than get into a veto fight with President Bush.

Bush refused to sign the bill over the holidays after Iraq complained about a provision that would expand the rights of victims to sue the new government for torture suffered at the hands of the since-deposed and executed Saddam Hussein.

The bill would have allowed plaintiffs to freeze Iraqi government assets in U.S. banks.

That prompted threats by Iraq to withdraw up to $25 billion it had in U.S. financial markets.

Voting 369-46, the House passed a revised bill that would exempt the Iraqi government from liability.

Some House leaders said they did not want to hold up the defense bill any longer.

The measure would allow members of the armed forces to collect a 3.5 percent pay raise and includes other veterans health care and military construction programs.

But others complained Bush and Congress were caving to Iraqi threats rather than the claims of Americans including former prisoners of war who were held by the former Iraq regime.

Heller and Porter voted for the revised defense bill.

Berkley did not vote. HOUSING PROGRAM EXPANDED

The House voted 271-130 to expand the repair and replacement of old and decaying public housing over the objections of Bush.

Bush argued the HOPE VI program was inefficient and slow and should be shut down.

The new bill would extend the program through 2015 and require the replacement of all public housing that is torn down with an equal number of units.

The acronym HOPE stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.

Bill sponsors pointed out that more than 30,000 public apartments and homes have been demolished without replacements built, forcing some families into homelessness.

Porter voted for the public housing bill. Heller voted against it. Berkley did not vote.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault or (202) 783-1760.

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