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Mine Disasters Demand Action From Congress

Three months after Sago, the House of Representatives has failed to act to improve mine safety.
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Three months ago today -- in the early morning hours of January 4, 2006 -- families in Upshur County, West Virginia, learned the terrible news that 12 of the 13 miners trapped by the explosion at the Sago Mine there had died. Since then, a string of accidents at U.S. coal mines have claimed another nine miners. That's 21 coal miners killed so far in 2006, compared with 22 in all of 2005. If that's not a problem that screams out for urgent action, I don't know what is.

Yet three months after Sago, the House of Representatives has failed to act to improve mine safety. The West Virginia congressional delegation -- on a bipartisan basis -- has introduced legislation to address the problem. But no hearings have been scheduled on that legislation, let alone a committee meeting to consider the bill and send it to the floor for a vote of the full House.

Compare these three months with the amount of time it took the House to act after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. Just 39 days later, the House had already passed the Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Act. This contrast is a clear example of how totally backwards this Congress' priorities are. The wardrobe malfunction didn't kill anyone.

In the months since Sago, we have learned a great deal about the state of safety and health conditions in the mine industry. We have learned that the Bush administration has undermined mine safety laws and protections through weak enforcement, regulatory rollbacks and budget cuts. We have learned that the administration is loath to impose high-dollar fines on mine companies that repeatedly put their workers' lives at risk. And we have learned that the mining industry in the United States is miles behind other nations when it comes to many safety standards.

As the Janet Jackson incident shows, the House can act quickly when it chooses. Now it should. Congress can offer the family members of the Sago miners some solace by helping to make it less likely that more families will have to experience their pain in the future.