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Lawmakers split on how to respond

West Virginia legislators are calling for a special committee to look into the state’s role in the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners last week.

Lawmakers seemed to agree that they needed a committee to educate themselves about mine safety and discuss possible changes in law or policy. But they disagreed about whether the committee should look into what caused the accident or focus solely on what changes were needed in the future.

Gov. Joe Manchin was expected to make an announcement today at 11 a.m. about a state investigation into the mine disaster.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, is one of only two coal miners in the Legislature and a United Mine Workers international representative.

He called for the Legislature to be involved in any investigation and offered his services to Manchin, House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan.

Neither Kiss nor Tomblin returned a phone call seeking comment Sunday.

“Of course, the state and federal agencies will conduct their investigations,” Caputo said. “We ought to take that a step further and have legislators from the House and Senate participate. We have a role in protecting mine safety, too.

“I want to be a part of this, because I want to learn if we did anything wrong. We need to discuss the accident and the way it was handled,” he said.

That’s not how Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, sees the Legislature’s role. He agrees that the Legislature needs to appoint a special committee, but he thinks it should look only at policy issues and not try to assess blame.

“I am opposed to a witch hunt that puts the heads of those responsible on sticks outside the Capitol,” Sprouse said. “We should look at the errors and fill in the gaps.”

Sprouse said the Legislature does not have the expertise or the staff to conduct a proper investigation, and should leave those issues to the federal and state officials.

Caputo said he doesn’t think of his request as being punitive.

“I disagree with the senator on calling it a witch hunt. I am quite offended by that, honestly,” Caputo said. He said he’d been a miner since he was 19.

“That’s where I got my education,” he said. “I spent 20 years working in the mines and went to work for the union 10 years ago. I think I have as much ability to sit in on the investigation as anybody in the Legislature.”

Sen. Jon Hunter, D-Monongalia, represents the district where seven of the miners lived. He knows the family of Randal McCloy Jr., who survived the blast and remains in critical condition at a Morgantown hospital.

He’s been attending the visitations and funerals of several dead miners and listening to their families and friends. He said they want lawmakers to focus on preventing such accidents in the future.

He said the family members are asking him questions such as these:

s Why did it take nearly 12 hours for the rescue teams to enter the mine? “I know there were plenty of union rescue teams trained and ready to go that were never asked,” Hunter said.

s Can we develop better breathing protection for the miners and rescuers? “We can send men to the moon, but we can’t give miners more than an hour of oxygen? We can’t make suits to allow rescuers to go into bad air?” Hunter asked.

s Can we better pinpoint where miners are located using global positioning systems or other technologies? Can we develop communications systems that are more likely to survive an explosion?

s Why weren’t rescuers able to start drilling a hole to the miners earlier?

“They aren’t looking so much to place blame,” Hunter said. “They want us to figure out what we can do in the future to make mines safer.”

To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.


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