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State mine safety office faces major shakeup

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's mine safety agency is facing a major shakeup as the state's coal industry experiences its deadliest year in three decades.

A day after Gov. Joe Manchin won election to the U.S. Senate, Manchin announced the departure of Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

And the safety office is also expected to lose its longtime administrator, Terry Farley. Wooten and Farley are both expected to take jobs in the private sector.

On Wednesday morning, Manchin announced that he had promoted deputy director C.A. Phillips to serve as acting director.

Phillips, a McDowell County native, is a former United Mine Workers safety officer and had worked for the state mine safety agency for more than 10 years.

"C.A. Phillips is recognized throughout the mining community as a strong leader and a man who cares deeply about mine safety," Manchin said in a prepared statement. "His leadership and experience will make this a smooth transition for the agency, its employees and the mining industry."

Phillips said he has already appointed as his acting deputy, Eugene White, the chief inspector in charge of the agency's Danville regional office.

"I truly believe that the most precious resource in the mining industry is the miner," Phillips said. "I appreciate the confidence Governor Manchin has shown in me with this appointment."

Wooten's resignation marks the second time in the last four years that the mine safety office has faced leadership changes amid investigations of major mining disasters.

In February 2006, after the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire, Doug Conaway left the agency director's job for a job with Arch Coal. West Virginia University mining instructor James Dean then held the post until Wooten was appointed in late August that year.

At the time, UMW President Cecil Roberts said that the union would have preferred that Phillips get the post instead of Wooten, who is a former CONSOL Energy safety director.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Roberts said that Phillips' appointment "marks a new day for West Virginia's miners, as there will be someone in that office who understands what it means to pack a lunch bucket and go to work in a coal mine every day."

Phillips began working in the mining industry in 1969, working for Olga Coal Co. He served in several positions for the UMW, including international representative for the union's safety and health department and as an international executive board member for Districts 29 and 17.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group would work with Phillips' in his role as acting director.

"We don't have any problems with him," Raney said. "He's been very even handed."

But Raney said it was too soon to say if the coal industry would support Phillips being named to the job permanently.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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