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Manchin forming mine plans

Just hours after an explosion trapped 13 miners in the Sago Mine in Upshur County, Gov. Joe Manchin told a national CNN audience no amount of precaution can prevent all mining accidents.

But by Wednesday night — after only one miner escaped the International Coal Group operation alive — Manchin had developed a different goal.

“In this state of West Virginia, we will not accept losing one miner,” said Manchin. “That’s our goal.”

Since Thursday, Manchin has huddled with staffers and others to try to figure out what the next step should be to meet that goal.

The governor is expected to announce some sort of plan within days — probably before his scheduled State of the State address on Wednesday, officials said.

“He’s determining how he wants to proceed,” Lara Ramsburg, the governor’s communications director, said late Friday.

Already, investigations of the Sago Mine disaster — the worst state mining accident in nearly 40 years — have been launched by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training.

Late last week, Manchin said he had someone in mind to lead the state’s investigation, but had not finalized the appointment. By naming someone outside the state mining office, Manchin might be launching an independent investigation. Administration officials said Friday they weren’t sure, in large part because the governor hasn’t decided on his final plans.

There have also been calls for congressional investigations and appointment of a special legislative committee. Manchin has not said whether he supports either of those proposals.

What is clear is that Manchin, a former coal broker who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington disaster, has made very strong statements pledging to try to eliminate mining deaths in the state altogether.

“We have to find out what happened,” Manchin said. “We will find out the exact cause.

“We will leave no stone unturned and our goal is to have not one fatality in the state of West Virginia.”

Former Gov. Bob Wise took several concrete steps to beef up West Virginia’s own mine safety efforts.

Wise gave the state mine safety office new authority to force coal contractors — a dangerous subset of the state’s mining work force — to report accident and injury information to regulators.

Also, Wise increased the agency’s ability to assess larger monetary penalties for more serious mine safety violations.

And, while most state agencies were being hit with budget cuts and staff hiring freezes, funding for the state mine safety office stayed stable — at about $6 million in general revenue — and retiring inspectors were replaced.

Two weeks ago, mine safety was probably not a major part of Manchin’s 2006 agenda. Now, that may all have changed. “One accident — one fatality — is too much,” the governor said. “And we’re not going to tolerate that.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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