IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In W. Va., pushing for improved mine safety

The outcry over mining accidents that resulted in 14 fatalities in West Virgina over the last three weeks has led to demands for increased safety legislation. NBC News’ Michelle Hofland reports from Logan, W. Va. 
Kevin Walls consoles Cris Gibson, both of Chapmanville, W.Va., as they exit the Bright Star Freewill Baptist Church in Melville, W.Va., Friday, Jan. 20. Two missing miners were found dead on Saturday in the state's latest mining tragedy.Jeff Gentner / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

A fire Thursday at Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, W.Va., the second major mining accident in the state within three weeks, resulted in two deaths, adding to the 12 who had died in the Sago disaster in the north of the state on January 2.

The outcry over the mining accidents has led to calls for new legislation to better ensure the safety of miners, with West Virginia’s Gov. Joe Manchin hoping to get major state legislation passed by the end of the day on Monday. In addition, a U.S. Senate subcomittee was meeting on Monday in Washington to discuss the issue of mine safety.

Speaking from Logan, W. Va., about two miles from the site of the latest mine tragedy, NBC News' Michelle Hofland reports on how local people feel about the proposed new legislation.

What is the local reaction around the Melville area to the push for greater legislation? Do people believe that the governor's proposals will be effective?
Nearly everyone that we talked to — and also based on the callers we heard calling into the WVOW radio show this morning — is confident that the governor and their lawmakers will be able to make some changes to make their mines safer.

They like the three different ideas that Gov. Manchin is proposing. The safety measures he is suggesting would require that miners underground have electronic monitoring so that their location can be pinpointed. Another proposal — to ensure that there is more rapid response to mining accidents — would require that mines contact a statewide hotline within 15 minutes to report an accident or they would receive a $100,000 fine. The third suggestion is to have emergency oxygen tanks placed throughout the mines.

People here like these three ideas. They would, of course, like more, but they say that this is a good beginning.

People here watched the governor when he was here with the families as they were waiting for news of their loved who were deep inside the mines. They saw the pain in his face as he was talking about what happened that day and how these families were impacted, and they are confident that he’ll be able to make changes to make these mines safer.

Is there any cynicism — any sense that the safety proposals are overdue and are in some ways just politics as usual?
I don’t think people here think that the legislative proposals are politically motivated. Rather, they believe that now that the eyes of the country are on them they’ll have the anger and emotion to help push changes that are long overdue.

How are the people in West Virginia feeling with all this bad news in such a short period of time? They must feel battered.
In addition to the two deaths here and the tragedy at the Sago Mine central West Virginia three weeks ago where 12 miners died, there was also a mining death in neighboring Kentucky two weeks ago as well.

That said, people here and a throughout the state are from generations of mining families, so they know the realities of mining — these mines are two miles underground and coal is combustible — and the dangers. And it still offers the best opportunity to make a livelihood in the area. So, generations and generations of these miners and their families will continue to return to the mines to earn a living.

I spoke with one man who was trapped down in that mine and got out from the smoke — from 1,000 feet below the ground or two miles down into the mine — and he says that he will go back to work at the mine.

While that’s hard for us to believe, he says that this is the best paying job, with the best benefits and the best health plan, in the area. He says this is the best place for him to work to support his family.

According to Larry Bevins, the general manager for WVOW Radio, the local radio station, miners can make anywhere from $50,000 to 90,000 a year with overtime. Plus the mines also offer health plans, 401Ks and other benefits.  

Despite the notion of generations of miners, what do people tell their children?
It’s just like anywhere else — they encourage their children to do better then what they did. But at the same time, the best jobs are in mines.

Bevins added that based on the calls he received into his radio talk show this morning, people know that there still will be accidents in the mines, even if this new legislation is passed. They just want to lessen the odds.

The people here are in line with the governor in saying that more needs to be done right now to make these mines safer.