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Rockefeller urges Obama to crack down on mine safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller has written a letter to President Obama urging immediate changes in the enforcement of mine safety regulations.

Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, sent the three-page letter to Obama following a May 24 hearing in Beckley.

Rockefeller and other officials met with coal miners' families and community members to talk about ways to improve mine safety in the wake of the April 5 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners.

"The testimony we heard and the proposals we received reflect an overarching and immediate call to action for industry, West Virginia, and the nation," Rockefeller wrote the president.

He said miners' family members and members of the mining community came up with several proposals for improving working conditions and compliance with safety regulations in the coal mining industry.

"Their input is especially important because, as I mentioned at the hearing, they are the real experts," Rockefeller said. "These families live in the coalfields of West Virginia and, in many cases, have worked underground for decades."

Rockefeller told the president mine owners should be held more accountable and that regulations for mines that are repeatedly in violation of safety standards should be tightened. More protection should also be offered for mine whistleblowers, including criminal charges for owners who fire miners for reporting safety violations, he wrote.

Several miners testified they were afraid to report problems at mines for fear of losing their jobs.

Recommendations that came out of the hearing included re-establishing the U.S. Bureau of Mines, improving rock dusting and mine ventilation standards and enhancing criminal penalties for tampering with safety equipment such as methane monitors.

Other recommendations for improving safety that came out of the hearing were:

| Requiring each mine to have a certified mine safety team made up of miners.

| Requiring federal inspectors to take miners with them on safety inspections.

| Requiring inspectors to inspect mines on evenings and weekends, not just during day shifts.

| Taking enforcement action against operators, mine guards or other employees who try to subvert inspections by warning mine owners that inspectors are at the mine.

"Coal miners are critical to our nation's economy and Americans depend on them far more than they realize or appreciate," Rockefeller wrote.

"West Virginia coal miners should be able to go to work and dig coal confident that they are working in the safest conditions possible. Their families should not have to worry about losing their loved ones simply because the go into the mines to work and provide for their families."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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