W.Va. lawmakers pass mine safety legislation

/ Source: The Associated Press

After 14 coal mining deaths in three weeks, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill Monday that would require mines to use electronic devices to track trapped miners and stockpile oxygen to keep them alive until help arrives.

The Senate and House both acted at the urging of Gov. Joe Manchin, who pressed lawmakers to pass the legislation by the end of the day.

“We can’t afford to wait any longer,” Manchin said after two miners were found dead over the weekend in a mine fire in Melville. Three weeks ago, 12 miners died after an explosion at the Sago Mine.

The Senate passed the bill without debate, 32-0, with two absences. The vote in the House of Delegates was 93-0, with seven absences. Because of slight changes, the bill was sent back to the Senate, where it was again accepted and sent on to Manchin.

“These 14 miners have not died in vain,” Manchin said.

Coal companies would have to comply by the end of February.

The governor’s legislation would require improved communications and the electronic tracking of coal miners underground, as well as faster emergency response and the storage of additional air supplies underground.

If the 14 miners who died in two accidents since Jan. 2 had been wearing a tracking device, “we could have concentrated all our efforts, all our resources on that one location,” Manchin said.

Victims' bodies found over weekend The bodies of the latest two victims were found over the weekend after a fire deep inside a mine in southern West Virginia. Twelve others died in early January following an explosion in the northern part of the state.

“These deaths, I believe, were entirely preventable,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said Monday at a hearing in Washington. “And we owe the families of these deceased and noble and great and brave men a hard look of what happened and why.”

“I think it’s a very important message to send to those grieving families across the state of West Virginia, and across the nation, that we are serious about mine safety,” state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin told senators after the bill was introduced. Tomblin’s district includes Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 mine at Melville, site of last week’s mine fire.

Proposal specifics
Manchin’s proposals would require mine operators to immediately call a new state hot line to report an accident or face a $100,000 fine. It also would require operators to cache extra breathing packs inside their mines and issue miners gear to pinpoint their location underground and allow them to communicate with the surface in emergencies.

In Washington, Byrd spoke at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on mine safety. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also planned a hearing.

Byrd criticized the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, saying he had no complaint with “the rescuers who risked their lives” trying to save trapped miners but with “the leadership in MSHA’s Washington office.”

The Bush administration is reviewing safety equipment in mines after scrapping similar initiatives started by the Clinton administration. Miners’ advocates said pulling those initiatives stopped potentially important safety rules from becoming reality; the Republicans cited changing priorities and resource concerns.

The National Mining Association and the United Mine Workers of America said Sunday that they, too, want a major overhaul of state and federal mine safety laws.

State’s national impact
Nationally, there were 22 mine deaths in 2005, a record low. Three of them were in West Virginia, the nation’s second-largest coal producer.

If Congress takes action, it would be the third time that a West Virginia tragedy has had nationwide ramifications.

The Mine Safety and Health Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion at Farmington killed 78 miners, including an uncle of Manchin. Federal laws governing the construction of mine drainage settling ponds were adopted after 125 people where killed when an impoundment gave way in 1972, spilling a flash flood that ripped through communities along Buffalo Creek, less than 20 miles from the Alma mine.