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Mine safety legislation passes

In the wake of the deaths of 14 coal miners this month, West Virginia lawmakers shoved through a bill Monday that Gov. Joe Manchin says will make underground coal mining safer in the Mountain State.

In an unusual move, both the Senate and House of Delegates suspended their rules and passed the bill (SB247) in a single day. In another unusual move, the governor spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full House, urging them to approve the legislation.

“Things are going to change and they’re going to change rapidly,” said Manchin, who is traveling to Washington, D.C., today to meet with the state’s congressional delegation and possibly President Bush.

The bill would force coal companies to notify state officials quickly in case of an accident, electronically track miners underground and place reserve portable air supplies throughout mines.

“The technology is there,” Manchin said. “These are not a great cost.”

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin introduced the bill on the Senate floor and attended the subsequent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“This bill will bring us into the 21st century,” said Tomblin, who is from Logan County, where two miners were found dead Saturday after a fire in their mine.

The bill would create a Mine and Industrial Accident Rapid Response System to handle reports of and quick response to coal mine emergencies.

The system would be maintained by the state Division of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

Together, the two agencies would operate a 24-hour communications center to coordinate response and dispatch rescue teams to mine emergencies.

Under the bill, coal operators would face a $100,000 fine if they do not contact emergency officials within 15 minutes of an accident.

“We don’t want to collect one penny in fines and I don’t think we’ll have to,” Manchin said of the heavy fine.

In the Sago Mine disaster in Upshur County, where 12 miners died, and the fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, there was lag time before officials were alerted, said Doug Conaway, head of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

The Sago explosion occurred at 6:30 a.m. and was reported by a foreman at 6:35 a.m. But, Conaway said, state officials were not contacted until 7:45 a.m. and were not told an explosion had happened.

The fire at the Aracoma mine in Melville was detected at 5:36 p.m. and miners were told to evacuate at 5:45 p.m. Conaway was not contacted until 7:45 p.m., and county emergency officials didn’t know about the fire until after 8 p.m.

The electronic tracking devices called for by the bill would be placed on miners’ helmets and would help find trapped miners.

Looping wires throughout a mine would allow for “wireless communication” with those underground. Conaway said a miner could be 6,000 to 8,000 feet away from the loop and still have contact with the outside. That could allow text messaging to the outside.

“If we knew where these people were at, we could’ve focused our attention there,” said Conaway, who called such a system “essential.” He said it would make rescues quicker and safer for the rescuers.

Manchin said his experience at both mine disaster sites made him agree. “We know if we would’ve known where these miners were, we could’ve concentrated all our resources in that area and we might have had a different outcome,” he said.

Davitt McAteer, the governor’s adviser on mine safety issues, said the communications devices are already used in about a dozen U.S. mines.

“It can be put into every mine in this country,” McAteer told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Monday in Washington, D.C.

For a small mine the size of the Sago Mine, the communications system would cost about $100,000, McAteer said. Each of the miner tracking devices costs about $20, he said.

“Products exist that are out there and are not being put into the mines,” he said.

The governor spoke about the families at Sago and Melville worrying after the one-hour limit on the miners’ portable air containers ran out. Under the new law, the containers, called SCSRs, would be stored in a variety of places in underground mines.

“You don’t have to think about that after we pass this legislation,” Manchin said.

Federal law allows operators to have each miner wear an SCSR, or provide one for each miner within 25 feet of where the miner works. Also, federal rules allow operators to store SCSRs farther than 25 feet from miners if they get special permission from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Regulations and rules dictating the distances and amounts where each would be stored will be done later through the legislative rule-making process, Manchin said.

“These are three things that make a difference,” he said. “I’ve just given you three common-sense proposals.”

He noted that last year only three underground miners were killed in the state. “And that’s three too many,” he said.

When some lawmakers questioned whether the proposals are enough to make mines safe, Manchin said lawmakers have the rest of the legislative session to come up with more safety measures.

While United Mine Workers representatives were not available for comment, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group is on board with the program. “We have the same goal as the governor, and that’s to be the safest coal mining in the world,” he said.

He called the three Manchin measures “perfectly logical steps,” in moving coal mine safety forward. Raney said some mines have already begun breathable-air storage, are quick to contact authorities, and are using text messaging.

He seemed most encouraged by using a tracking system. “It’s important that technology be pushed,” he said.

In the House and the Senate committee, Manchin related his memories of the 1968 Farmington mine disaster in Marion County that trapped one of his uncles. Sitting around awaiting any word with his anxious family reminded him all too well of the need to console trapped miners’ families at the two recent disasters. The Farmington disaster led to some of the nation’s first coal mine safety laws.

“Governor, no governor should have to have gone through what you have this past month,” Tomblin said.

Delegate Lidella Hrutkay, D-Logan, said she sat in a church pew in Melville and cried with miners’ families on Friday.

Hrutkay said the families told her those who escaped the Aracoma fire were told by management of Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, that if they spoke with the news media they would lose their jobs. She also said miners told her the mine’s belt, which caused the deadly fire that killed two, had been running hot for several days.

“I heard from many different people, from many different groups, the same thing,” she said.

Hrutkay said she wanted to make the comments publicly. “If this puts me on the CEO of Massey’s hit list, I don’t care,” she said.

Since last year, Massey CEO Don Blankenship has become politically active in the state, spending large sums of money against candidates and issues. Most recently, he said he would work to defeat House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh.

The Senate Judiciary Committee made several minor changes in the bill, and the full Senate unanimously passed it.

The House listened to Manchin’s speech and asked questions of his staff for more than an hour before adjourning for party caucuses. Delegates then made two minor amendments — one that would not make the criminal penalties not effective until 90 days later — and unanimously passed the bill 92-0.

The bill then went back to the Senate to concur on the House amendments and passed 31-0.

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this story.

To contact staff writer Tom Searls, use e-mail or call 348-5192.


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