WASHINGTON — Democratic backers of a bill designed to force mining regulatory agencies to take a tougher stance with coal operators eked out a victory in the House of Representatives Wednesday but fell far short of a veto-proof majority.
President Bush has vowed to veto the measure, which would require the Mine Safety and Health Administration to impose stricter fines for health and safety violations, add safeguards to the oft-criticized "retreat mining" practice, call for a reduction in black lung and other mining-related health issues and improve emergency response to disasters.
The final vote, largely along party lines, was 214-199. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.
The debate between Democrats and the Bush administration centers on regulating an industry that's long been considered the economic backbone of Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the country.
It's also an industry that's faced increased scrutiny after several high-profile mining-related deaths. Last year, a collapse at Crandall Canyon in Utah killed nine miners. In 2006, an underground explosion at the Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., killed five people, and an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia killed 12 miners.
House Democrats, led by Rep. George Miller of California, the bill's sponsor, accused the Bush administration of "total failure to work aggressively to keep miners safe on the job." Democrats said the Bush administration has done little to push for changes and has filled top-level positions at the Mine Safety and Health Administration with former mining company executives, including the agency's current acting head, Richard Stickler.
Bush and the White House Office of Management and Budget say the House legislation would "quadruple the number of investigations into multi-injury or multi-fatality accidents." White House officials also said that the Democrats' push would derail efforts already under way as part of the sweeping 2006 MINER Act, which was passed after the Sago Mine disaster.
The bill's supporters say the Mine Safety and Health Administration needs greater authority to assess and collect higher fees and shut down companies that show a pattern of violations.
Republican lawmakers also pointed to the increase in mine safety in states such as Kentucky, which according to the state's Department of Natural Resource experienced the safest year in the state's mining history, as proof that the 2006 revisions are working.
The Bush administration, many Republican lawmakers and the mining industry said the legislation passed Wednesday requires new regulations on the strength of mine seals, even though a temporary standard on such seals was passed last year and a final regulation is expected in February. The measure's opponents also said that the legislation doesn't go far enough to test and help curb the increase in prescription drug addiction among the nation's miners.
During the 2006 election cycle, Republicans received 85 percent, or roughly $2 million, of the coal mining industry's donations. Democrats received 15 percent, or $378,671, according to federal campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.