Pennsylvania legislators have been busy drafting comprehensive legislation to overhaul the state’s mine safety law. The nearly 100-page long product of their efforts is Senate Bill 949. S.B. 949 was introduced in Harrisburg on January 11th. It is reportedly a collaborative effort that enjoys the support of a number of vital constituencies – miners, operators and regulators within the Rendell Administration.

While it is still early in the legislative process, the prospects for passage of an underground mine safety package this session look promising. S.B. 949 sailed out of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee with a unanimous vote and could potentially be passed by the Senate in the near future. By comparison, reform measures introduced in prior years have stalled at the subcommittee level. (A substantively similar bill, House Bill 2164, has been introduced in the House and is pending before the House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy.)

S.B. 949’s momentum to date may be rooted in a sense among legislators and Governor Rendell, who has reportedly indicated a willingness to sign the bill in its current form, that it is time to overhaul Pennsylvania’s mine safety laws. These laws were last updated in 1961. The recent call for reform began with the investigation of the July 2002 mine inundation at the Quecreek No. 1 Mine in Somerset County. That accident received national media attention monitoring successful efforts to rescue miners who were trapped for nearly 80 hours after unknowingly cutting into an adjacent, abandoned mine (not marked on any certified final mine map) and releasing millions of gallons of water. Most recently, state legislators have watched Congress amend the federal mine safety laws following several high-profile underground mine accidents in West Virginia and Utah.

The state mine safety overhaul envisioned in S.B. 949 is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

First, S.B. 949 calls for the repeal of several underground mining laws, including the 1947 Coal Mine Seal Act, and the 1961 Pennsylvania Bituminous Coal Mine Act. According to S.B. 949’s preamble, the 1961 mine safety law “is becoming outdated and lacks an effective mechanism to modify existing standards and to adopt new standards.” To meet the criticism that Pennsylvania law does not presently authorize regulators to issue or enforce mine safety regulations and keep pace with technology, S.B. 949 calls for the establishment of a Board of Coal Mine Safety. If S.B. 949 becomes law, the Board, comprised in part of miner and operator representatives would wield rulemaking authority, including the power to issue interim mandatory safety standards, and regulations “necessary or appropriate to implement the requirements of [the proposed law].”

Second, in addition to any interim mandatory standards issued by the Board, S.B. 949 (and the companion and substantively identical version, H. 2164, introduced in the Pennsylvania House), contains six chapters (90 pages) detailing numerous proposed technical requirements. The duties and respective responsibilities of mine foreman, mine examiners, and superintendents, for example, are set out in exacting detail, presumably to promote safety and ensure accountability, in the wake of the recent mine accidents including Quecreek, for violations of applicable legal requirements. Failure to provide a certified final map would now constitute a felony under S.B. 949. Standards for operation of diesel equipment (15 pages) are spelled out with precision and, as with all other provisions of the proposed legislation, would go into effect within 60 days of enactment.

Third, S.B. 949 includes a separate chapter devoted to civil and criminal enforcement and administrative penalties. It gives the state three years from the occurrence to sue mine officials and coal operators for alleged violations. In short, the objective, as recently voiced by chief Senate sponsor Richard Kasunic, is to pass “the best mine-safety law in the nation,” and presumably one of the most stringent.

While the full scope and force of the recently introduced legislation will likely not be grasped absent a side-by-side analysis of the 1961 mine safety law and proposed S.B. 949, by all present indications, 2008 will likely usher in a new set of statutory mine safety requirements in Pennsylvania as well as proposed regulations to match from a Board of Coal Mine Safety.