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In wake of new deaths, mines heed safety check

At coal mines across West Virginia, miners started their shifts Thursday with lectures on safety, following a request from the governor for all 544 mines to conduct safety checks before continuing operations.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At coal mines across West Virginia, miners started their shifts Thursday with lectures on safety, following a request from Gov. Joe Manchin for all 544 mines to conduct safety checks before continuing operations.

Sixteen miners have died in four separate accidents in West Virginia mines already this year, the latest of them in two mines on Wednesday.

Manchin called for immediate safety checks that afternoon, and an industry group that represents 80 percent of the state’s coal producers said Thursday its members were complying.

“Everybody is going to tailor this to their individual needs and what works best for them,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “What this does is it brings attention to what is done every day.”

Safety talks
Mining companies started safety talks within hours of Manchin’s request Wednesday, and others planned to have discussions during pre-shift meetings, Raney said. He said the safety checks were not expected to affect coal production in the nation’s second largest coal producing state.

Governor’s spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said Manchin does not have the authority to shut down mines that do not heed the safety check request, but she was unaware of any companies refusing to do so.

Beyond the safety checks, Manchin told state mine regulators to speed up their mine inspection schedule and review all 229 surface and 315 underground mines immediately. Ramsburg said the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has agreed to send additional inspectors to assist, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many.

In Washington, David Dye, acting U.S. assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, asking coal mines nationwide to conduct a time-out, or “Stand Down for Safety,” on Monday to remind their employees about safety precautions.

Deadly month
Both accidents Wednesday were in Boone County, about 50 miles south of the state capital. State mine safety officials said a bulldozer operator was killed at the Black Castle Surface Mine operated by Massey Energy Co. subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co. in Uneeda. An underground miner died after a wall support failed at Long Branch Energy’s No. 18 Tunnel Mine in Wharton, officials said.

Last month, 12 miners died after an explosion exposed them to carbon monoxide inside International Coal Group Inc.’s Sago Mine. Less than three weeks later, two miners died in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine in Melville.

In 2005, the nationwide death toll at coal mines was 14 at underground mines and 8 at surface mines. West Virginia had its lowest total on record with three.

News of the deaths came just before Manchin’s office filed the emergency rules needed to carry out the mine safety law he signed last week. The legislation was passed by state lawmakers in response to January’s mine disasters.

The sole survivor of the Sago disaster, Randal McCloy Jr., is recovering at a Morgantown rehabilitation hospital.

Legislation push
The new safety law requires coal companies to provide miners with emergency communicators and tracking devices, and to store extra air supplies underground. That legislation also mandates that companies report mine accidents within 15 minutes or face a $100,000 penalty.

West Virginia’s congressional delegation is pushing for the same at the national level. Its members introduced legislation that would require the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to toughen fines, enforce existing rules and issue new ones to give trapped miners a better chance of surviving fires, explosions and cave-ins.

The mines where Wednesday’s accidents occurred had different safety records. The Long Branch mine employs around 59 people and produced 371,844 tons of coal last year, according to MSHA. Eight workers were injured during the first nine months of 2005. When measured by hours worked, the mine’s injury rate was more than two and a half times the national average for a mine of that type, according to MSHA figures.

Federal inspectors issued 50 citations against the mine last year. While penalties have yet to be proposed for 13 of those citations, penalties for the others total $3,677.

The Black Castle mine has about 186 workers and yielded 2.7 million tons of coal last year, MSHA figures show. With only two employees injured during the first three quarters of 2005, its injury rate fell below the national average for that mine type. It was issued 63 citations in 2005, resulting in $14,830 in penalties.