(AP) — Four members of Congress donned hardhats and ventured deep inside a Colorado mine Monday to hold a hearing on the urgent need to train more mining engineers. "This is weird," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop said as he looked around a rough-walled chamber lighted by fluorescent bulbs about 1,000 feet inside the Edgar Mine.
A small audience — also wearing hardhats — laughed.
The mine, 35 miles west of Denver, once produced silver, gold and other metals and now serves as a teaching laboratory for students at the Colorado School of Mines. The lawmakers trudged along low, narrow tunnels with rocky walls to get to a makeshift classroom for a hearing of the Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee.
The mining industry says it has a pressing need for new engineers amid a looming wave of retirements.
Subcommittee members said the August spill of toxic waste from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado underscored the need.
An Environmental Protection Agency-led crew accidentally released 3 million gallons of wastewater while attempting a cleanup, polluting rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
EPA critics say qualified experts could have prevented the spill, but the agency has no mining engineers among its 15,300 employees.
Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., sponsored a bill to ensure up to $2 million a year from an existing mine program goes to help train new engineers.
"We have witnessed a dangerous decline in the number of accredited mining schools and the graduates they produce," said Hardy, who attended the hearing.
The shortage affects regulatory agencies and college faculty as well as the industry, Hardy said.
His bill is among several introduced after the Gold King spill. Others include "Good Samaritan" legislation designed to encourage companies and nonprofits to help clean up thousands of abandoned mines nationwide by protecting them from liability for environmental accidents.
Bishop, a Utah Republican, said after the hearing that Hardy's proposal could help prevent future accidents like the one at the Gold King, but it will take time to get new engineers trained and into the workforce. Hardy and Bishop were joined at the hearing by Colorado Reps. Doug Lamborn, a Republican, and Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat.
Lamborn, the subcommittee chairman, said it was the first time Congress had held a hearing in a mine.