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Byrd questions mine safety structure

After meeting with federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials, Sen. Robert. C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said he remains “very concerned about whether enough is being done to prevent more mining disasters from occurring.”

Byrd met with MSHA officials in his Capitol office on Wednesday afternoon about the investigation into last week’s explosion that killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

“I don’t believe that the federal government is doing enough to protect coal miners from future tragedies. There are not enough inspectors. There are not enough resources. The federal mine safety agency is understaffed, underfunded and underequipped,” Byrd said after the meeting.

Byrd worked with Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to schedule a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Jan. 19 to examine the federal response to the Upshur County tragedy.

“Those miners perhaps could have been able to be saved. We’ve got to find out what went wrong, and look to save lives in the future,” Byrd said.

“The Sago families paid the dearest price in this tragedy. We have an obligation to them to find out what happened to their families. We also have a responsibility to coalfield families in West Virginia and across the country to make sure that mine safety is not ignored,” Byrd said.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said Byrd, Specter and Harkin “all have a long commitment to coal miners and their health and safety. I have confidence that with them taking the lead, we will get answers.”

Roberts hopes the UMW, which provided rescue workers to the Sago Mine, will be “an integral part” of federal and state investigations.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent a letter to MSHA officials on Wednesday asking them to look at safety conditions at the Viper Mine in Williamsville, Ill., which employs 235 workers. The International Coal Group, owned by Wilbur Ross, owns both mines.

“According to MSHA records, the Viper Mine in Illinois was cited for 42 ‘serious and significant’ violations out of 124 total citations in 2005, which was the first full calendar year in which the IGC owned the mine.

“It is my hope that the Sago disaster was an isolated incident and does not reflect a pattern of mismanagement by the ICG and unsafe conditions at the Viper Mine,” Durbin wrote.

Durbin also noted President Bush proposed cuts to the MSHA budget in four of the five years he has been in office. Since 2000, 190 federal inspectors have lost their jobs.

Byrd said, “Mining is a very hazardous occupation. We need to be sure that the federal agency with responsibility for mine safety is doing its work.

“Does it have enough resources? Is it enforcing the laws on the books? Do the laws need to be updated? What went wrong in this response? How do we apply those lessons to future disasters?” Byrd asked.

Byrd said new technologies might help.

“We can send machines to Mars and communicate with them almost instantaneously. We ought to be able to talk with miners trapped 400 feet below ground.

“We create boxes that can withstand a plane explosion; we ought to be able to build emergency survival kits that can withstand a mine explosion and help miners to stay alive,” Byrd said.

The Senate committee will invite federal and state mining officials to testify, as well as representatives from labor, business and academic institutions.

To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.


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