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First hearing on collapse of Utah mine starts today

Both Senate and House are looking for answers

WASHINGTON — A Senate hearing today will kick off two days of congressional testimony on the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse as the Senate and House continue to look for answers and consider how to prevent similar accidents.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a two-panel hearing beginning this morning with six witnesses. The committee's members include Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The House Education and Labor Committee, meanwhile, will hear Wednesday from Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and family members of those lost in the tragedy.

The Aug. 6 accident in Huntington, Emery County, trapped and killed six miners. A separate collapse 10 days later killed three people and injured others who were trying to rescue the trapped miners.

Senate Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and House Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., each decided to move forward with their hearings, despite requests from the Mine Safety and Health Administration to hold off until its investigation has been completed.

Kennedy and Miller have requested volumes of documents on the mine from the Labor Department to aid in their own investigations. Miller issued a subpoena for documents to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao late last month.

On Monday, the Senate Committee's top Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to review two-way mine communication and breathing technologies based on the Crandall Canyon Mine accidents.

"The tragedy at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah highlighted the importance of better underground mine communication and tracking technology," Enzi said. "When an accident occurs, rescuers need to be able to find and communicate with lost miners — their lives depend on it."

Enzi sent a letter to Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, and Dr. Jeffrey Kohler, associate director for mine safety and health research at NIOSH — both of whom will testify at today's hearing — asking them to review the research and advances in deep-mine communications and breathable air technology.

Enzi said the rescue efforts could have been helped if rescuers could communicate with those trapped under 1,800 feet of rock, and that getting devices enabling miners to have "adequate breathable air is just as crucial."

Enzi was chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when the Republicans controlled the Senate. Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the MINER ACT, last year and asked NIOSH for a progress report on those areas since the law has been implemented.

Those scheduled to testify at today's Senate hearing, among others, are Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal mine safety and health for the Mine Safety and Health Administration; Joseph Osterman, managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board; and Dennis O'Dell, administrator for health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America.