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Coal CEO, UMW head say industry should eliminate all injuries

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal operators need to make their priority eliminating all workplace deaths and injuries, the president of the United Mine Workers union and one major coal producer agreed Friday.

UMW President Cecil Roberts and Patriot Coal CEO Richard Whiting found common ground on the issue during a discussion in Charleston at Wheeling Jesuit University's fourth annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium.

"We should have a whole year with zero fatalities," Roberts said.

Whiting added, "We're not only after zero fatalities. We're after zero incidents. We believe that all workplace incidents are preventable."

Roberts and Whiting made their remarks against the backdrop of this week's one-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the comments of some West Virginia political leaders that whether another such disaster ever occurs is in the hands of God.

On Thursday, symposium organizer and longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer proposed a series of reforms based on his Upper Big Branch investigation, and said that mining deaths are not an unavoidable cost of producing coal.

"There are not pre-ordained numbers of miners who have to perish to produce the nation's energy," McAteer said. "The fate of these miners is not in the hands of God, but in the hands of the mining community."

Nationwide, 48 coal miners died on the job last year, the most in any year since 1992. In West Virginia, last year's 35 coal-mining deaths were the most since 1979.

During Friday's panel discussion, Whiting said he was not in the room the previous day when McAteer outlined his reform proposals and couldn't comment on them.

Whiting said he has mixed feelings about a proposed federal mine safety bill named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

"I don't know that I would agree with every single aspect of it," he said. "I'm sure there are some key elements."

Whiting also said he worries about rushing to pass new laws and regulations in the wake of major mining disasters "when there are painfully fresh memories" of the deaths.

"The big picture may be lost in the immediate goals," Whiting said. New rules passed after the disasters in 2006 have put a "tremendous demand on resources," he said, and quick actions that aren't thought through can sometimes have "unintended consequences."

Although Patriot has both union and non-union mines, UMW officials frequently tout its safety record, and government officials and politicians have often praised the company's Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County as a model of labor-management cooperation.

Roberts said that Whiting called him last year after word surfaced of a federal criminal investigation of allegations of faked safety examinations at Federal No. 2. Whiting promised to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it, Roberts said.

Since then, a former Federal No. 2 foreman has pleaded guilty to lying about conducting a safety examination at the mine. That foreman and two other Federal No. 2 officials resigned.

"We took swift action to make changes, and I feel like we've made the necessary changes," Whiting said. "There is just no place for what was alleged at that coal mine."

Roberts emphasized that the union and the company, "collectively said, 'This can't go on.' One or two people were putting everybody at risk."

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


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