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Highlights

In 2006, several mining tragedies led the Congress to pass the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act). The law required underground coal mine operators to develop emergency response plans that contain several components designed to improve accident preparedness and response, including providing a refuge of air to miners trapped underground after an accident and wireless communications systems. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is responsible for approving the plans and ensuring their implementation. GAO examined (1) the effectiveness of the approval process, (2) the status of implementation of the plans, and (3) MSHA's efforts to enforce and oversee implementation. To address these questions, GAO reviewed a nonprobability sample of emergency response plans, analyzed MSHA data, and interviewed MSHA officials and members of the mining community.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor To ensure that new and existing mines are held to the same agencywide standards in preparing for future accidents, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to develop and issue additional guidance to district offices to clarify what is required for key components of the emergency response plans, such as providing postaccident breathable air for the maintenance of trapped miners.
Closed - Implemented
On June 5, 2008, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health issued a memorandum (Memo No. HQ-08-060-A) to MSHA District Managers on "Guidance on the Use of Checklists for Emergency Response Plan Reviews." The guidance includes three checklists for MSHA district offices to use when conducting emergency response plan reviews in order to clarify what is required for key components of the emergency response plans. MSHA specifically reported that the memo and checklists were issued to respond to this recommendation and to improve consistency and uniformity across the districts on what must be included in a new emergency response plan review and what must be considered during a 6-month review.
Department of Labor To improve trapped miners' chances of survival after future accidents through the use of advanced technology, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to work with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to develop guidance for mine operators on how to meet the June 2009 requirement to provide postaccident wireless communications systems.
Closed - Implemented
In a June 2008 letter to Congress, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials reported that the agency had been working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on guidance for mine operators on how to meet the June 15, 2009 requirement to provide post-accident wireless communications systems and expected to implement guidelines at least six months prior to the deadline (December 2008). In December 2008, MSHA released guidance to mine operators on meeting the June 15, 2009 deadline. This guidance was published in the Federal Register (volume 73 no. 244) dated December 12, 2008.
Department of Labor To improve oversight of the enforcement and approval of emergency response plans, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health to take steps to ensure that district offices are consistently applying MSHA's guidance on approving and enforcing emergency response plans, such as: (1) analyzing its citation data by district offices and using the information to clarify policies across districts if these analyses reveal discrepancies in policies; (2) analyzing violations of the MINER Act and related regulations to identify trends and ensure that the appropriate penalties are being assessed, particularly for repeat violations; and (3) reviewing a sample of plans across districts to ensure that the content of the plans meets a consistent agencywide standard and, if not, take corrective action by clarifying the guidance.
Closed - Implemented
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported that it has completed several actions to implement this recommendation. Specifically, MSHA's Acting Assistant Secretary issued a memo on April 17, 2008 requiring that national and district-level accountability reviews include reviews of relevant emergency response plans to ensure consistency in plan provisions, operator implementation, and enforcement efforts. On June 3, 2008, MSHA's Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health issued a memorandum (memo no. HQ-08-054-A) to MSHA district managers and staff on "Corrective Measures for Citing Violations of the MINER Act." In this memo, the Administrator clarifies how inspectors should cite mines for violations that could potentially be cited under the law or MSHA standards in order "to ensure that repeat violations are accurately captured in a mine's violation history."

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