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West Virginia disaster: Will Congress take on coal mining companies?

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“The record of [the Massey mine] is problematic, and it may be the [MINER Act] needs an additional amendment to give MSHA and the US attorneys greater power to prevent irresponsible companies from gaming the system,” says Patrick McGinley, a professor of law at West Virginia University, who enforced mine safety laws in Pennsylvania as a former special assistant attorney general.

Safety nationwide had been improving

The deaths this week actually reverse what had been a positive trend for mining deaths. Last year saw 18 coal mining deaths, compared with 47 in 2006.

The MINER Act has helped MSHA increase its inspection force, raise fines, and meet its mandate of inspecting all underground mines at least four times a year. Moreover, technologies such as extra emergency breathing devices and airtight rescue chambers designed to keep miners alive for as many as four days are slowly coming online.

But Mr. McGinley is hesitant to ascribe the improvements to the MINER Act. The newly required emergency technologies have not all been tested, and mining companies have resisted installing the new measures, often appealing their violations, McGinley says.

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