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Mine tragedies spark needed rules, enforcement from feds: our view

Can anyone forget the terrible underground mining disasters in West Virginia that shocked the country at the beginning of this year? Though the nature of mining on the Iron Range is different, the tragedies still resonated with Minnesotans, who i...

Can anyone forget the terrible underground mining disasters in West Virginia that shocked the country at the beginning of this year? Though the nature of mining on the Iron Range is different, the tragedies still resonated with Minnesotans, who in October lost one of their own.

Less than a year later, something is being done. The U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration has refocused its attention right where it needs to be: on improving mining safety.

A host of welcome new rules became law last summer under a federal provision called the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, or MINER Act. Laws mean nothing without enforcement, and to make sure they're enforced, the Labor Department is stepping up the hiring of mine inspectors with a recruiting effort taking place in Illinois and Indiana this week.

Among other things, the rules called for rescue teams at all underground mines and required wireless, two-way communications and electronic tracking systems to help locate trapped miners. Other requirements -- such as continually reviewing, updating and recertifying mines' emergency response plans and immediately reporting (within 15 minutes) life-threatening incidents or accidents -- seemed so logical they really should already have been on the books. They weren't, but are now.

And while the rules apply mostly to coal mines, the renewed attention to safety offers at least some reassurance to the Range where, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, dozens of miners were killed every year in accidents. That was back when the Iron Range had hundreds of underground iron ore mines, and safety wasn't given the consideration it is now. The Iron Range's last underground mine, Ely's Pioneer Mine, closed in 1967 after operating nearly 80 years.

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Six open-pit mines operate on the Range. Roof collapses and explosions aren't an issue there like at underground coal mines in West Virginia and elsewhere. And decades-long struggles by unions, along with an emerging interest in safety by mining companies, makes mining a far safer occupation in Minnesota than even a couple of generations ago.

But open-pit mining remains far from completely safe. Moving machinery, high-voltage electricity and equipment as large as houses requires miners to always be alert to safety rules. In October, a 24-year-old employee of United Taconite died when two electrical explosions rocked a motor control room at the facility's concentrator and main substation near Forbes. A second employee suffered smoke inhalation.

The Louisville Courier-Journal argued in an editorial Sunday that "it's really not 'accidents' that kill miners. Rather, they die because laws are broken, regulations are ignored (and) rules are circumvented." That's not always true. But the argument underscores how rules and laws can be effective only if, and when, they're followed.

Getting them on the books comes first. And "the new MINER Act (is) the most significant mine-safety legislation we've seen in nearly 30 years," as Assistant Secretary off Labor for Mine Safety and Health Richard E. Stickler said in an e-mail to the News Tribune editorial page yesterday. "We need to do everything we can to continue to improve safety in our nation's mines so miners can return home safely to their families at the end of their shifts."

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