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When you ask Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, about last week’s bad legislative news, he has to pause to consider exactly which bad news to talk about. Last Wednesday, the House Education and Labor Committee passed a bill tightening the safety mandates in last year’s MINER Act and extending them outside the coal mining industry. The next day, the Senate’s global warming subcommittee approved legislation that would begin imposing carbon monoxide emissions caps by 2012. Later that same afternoon, the full House passed legislation forcing mining companies to pay royalties for operations on public lands. “There is a recognition that the world has moved, and we’re going to move with it,” Popovich says. None of the bills could be called a surprise. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who heads the Education and Labor Committee, has been working on a mine safety package since voting against a compromise deal last year that he found too weak. The global warming bill is the 110th Congress’ ninth go-around at an issue at the core of the Democratic agenda, and proponents of the bill updating the General Mining Act of 1872 joke that Congress has been working on raising royalty payments since the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. Together, however, the bills amount to a test of the mining industry’s publicly proclaimed newfound spirit of compromise. One industry response has been to reach out to Democrats: In the previous Congress, the NMA gave nine times more to Republican candidates than to Democrats. Since the change in party control, however, the association has made limited concessions to political reality: Now it only gives Republicans twice as much as Democrats. “The movement is what we’re talking about here,” Popovich says. Of the three bills, the only one not to draw an NMA rebuke by press release was the climate change legislation, which Popovich says is less worrisome to the mining industry than some rival proposals. On the public lands bill, the industry claims it is willing to deal, though Popovich says the legislation’s stipulation of an 8 percent tax on all mines amounts to an eviction of miners from public lands. But it’s the S-MINER Act, mandating an array of safety changes ranging from improved communications systems to stronger seals on shuttered mining tunnels, lower coal dust exposure, and greater investigative powers for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, that has drawn the strongest opposition from the industry. In early October, the Education and Labor Committee held hearings investigating the deaths of six miners and three rescuers during Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine collapse in August. A succession of mining families, safety advocates, and state officials accused the mine’s owner and the MSHA of negligence. On Wednesday, the United Mine Workers of America called the bill part of a “charge to save miners’ lives” and stated that it’s not expecting any compromises on the House floor. “We anticipate it passing in its current format,” says Phil Smith, spokesman for the miners’ association. But the NMA doesn’t support a single provision in the bill, insisting that the last round of safety changes has yet to really be tested. “We’ve barely had a year to implement a very comprehensive law which requires us to change procedures,” Popovich says. Patton Boggs’ Henry Chajet, who lobbies on behalf of the mining industry, argues that instead of stiffening penalties and adding more safety requirements, regulations need to be overhauled to shift resources toward inspections and follow-up after violations. Given the Democratic majority in the House, it’s a long shot that the industry will stop, or even significantly alter, the mine safety bill in the House. In the Senate, however, industry lobbyists will rely on Democrats’ narrower margins and help from key Democratic senators from mining states. That list includes Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and powerful West Virginian Robert Byrd. By legislating broad safety rules for the entire mining industry, opponents of the bill believe the Democrats may have bitten off more than their party can chew. “Many of our clients are not coal operators, and they felt that applying these provisions to noncoal mines was totally inappropriate,” says Patton Boggs’ Chajet. “If you’re a Democratic member from the Michigan delegation, and you’ve got some noncoal mining providing some very important commodities, you’re going to fight real hard to protect those industries.”
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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