Manchin urges federal mine reforms
West Virginia leaders on Tuesday took their push for improved coal-mine rescue systems to the White House, urging the Bush administration to apply new state reforms at mines across the country.
The state’s congressional delegation promised legislation to implement changes where the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has not acted.
“We’re going to work hard, and we’re going to work with speed,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
Byrd arranged for Gov. Joe Manchin to meet Tuesday with White House chief of staff Andrew Card and officials from the Department of Labor, of which MSHA is a part. Manchin hand-delivered a copy of the mine safety legislation passed Monday by the state Legislature, his spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said.
Afterward, Manchin had a “brief but certainly cordial meeting” with President Bush in the Oval Office, Ramsburg said.
In their few minutes together, President Bush expressed concern about the dead miners’ families and pledged to do all he could to help them, she said. Bush and his staff said they will review the delegation’s proposed legislation.
Manchin is scheduled to meet today with Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman and attend federal Medicaid Commission meetings before returning to Charleston.
The meetings come just after Manchin pushed through — in one day — new measures to help rescue miners who become trapped by underground fires and explosions.
Under the legislation, coal companies will have to provide additional emergency oxygen supplies in underground mines. Operators will also have to equip all miners with wireless communication devices and electronic tracking systems.
Details of each of the requirements will be worked out later, in rules to be written by the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.
In his White House meeting Tuesday, Manchin urged the Bush administration to apply West Virginia’s reforms at coal and other mines across the nation.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he hopes MSHA will get the message and begin its own improvements.
“We’ll do legislation if it takes that, but they can do some of this without legislation,” Rockefeller said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
All five members of the state’s congressional delegation said they were pleased with the White House response, despite a lack of any specific commitments.
But Byrd also used the meeting to “dress down” acting MSHA chief David G. Dye for leaving in the middle of a Monday Senate hearing on mine safety, Rockefeller said.
“It was quite a dressing down, and he was right on point,” Rockefeller said.
Byrd said Dye’s departure was a “gross error” and a “very arrogant thing for him to do,” especially after subcommittee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., specifically asked him not to leave.
“They don’t want to answer questions — that’s why this man left the hearing,” Byrd said. “That’s at the bottom of the problem.
“If this is how MSHA and the other executive agencies that have jurisdiction over mine safety act toward members of Congress, how do they treat coal miners?”
Dye told senators the hearing had “diverted” him and other MSHA officials. He said they needed to leave in order to, in part, deal with a mine fire in Colorado.
Apparently, Dye was referring to a fire at Arch Coal Inc.’s West Elk Mine. That fire has been burning since November. The mine is temporarily closed, and there were no reports this week of any emergency situations there.
Meanwhile, the United Mine Workers said the investigation of the Sago Mine disaster is “dissolving into a travesty” as International Coal Group officials continue to object to UMW representatives taking part in the probe.
The Sago Mine is a nonunion operation. But several miners exercised their legal right to designate the UMW as their representative in the investigation.
ICG objected, and then said it has gathered signatures from other Sago workers who want the company to be their representative in the probe.
MSHA investigation procedures contemplate such developments, and include provisions for separate representatives of different miners to take part.
UMW President Cecil Roberts said two families of miners who died at Sago have designated the UMW as their representative in the investigation.
In a prepared statement, the UMW said union safety representatives will accompany federal and state investigators to the Sago Mine today as the on-site examination of the mine begins.
“We have been assured by MSHA that if ICG attempts to deny us access to the property, MSHA will issue a citation, then an order for them to cease their obstruction,” Roberts said. “If ICG still refuses to follow the law, then MSHA will go to court to obtain a court order.”
Twelve miners died in the Sago disaster, making it the worst mining accident in West Virginia in nearly 40 years. Two more miners died in the Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. The 14 mining deaths so far in 2006 are more than the state’s total for any entire year since 1995, according to MSHA records.
“It’s unfortunate that every coal mine health and safety law on the books is written in the blood of coal miners,” Rep. Nick J. Rahall said after Tuesday’s White House meeting. “But we’re doing what is right. We should not allow these 14 brave miners to have died in vain.”
Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., said the state’s delegation might have mine rescue legislation ready to introduce as early as next week.
Mollohan said he anticipates more accident-prevention legislation after investigations of the Sago and Aracoma accidents are complete.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she believes the White House is “very interested and committed” to working on mine safety improvements.
Capito said she was concerned about MSHA moves over the last five years to drop plans for improved mine safety and rescue rules.
“I’m bothered by any action that we can see that made any mine less safe,” Capito said in an interview.
“On the face of it, putting an airway in with a beltline that fuels a fire is deeply troubling,” Capito said, referring to a Bush rule change that was used at the Aracoma Mine. “How did we get to that point?
“It doesn’t really matter whose administration it was,” she said. “We’ve got to dig deep, find the problems, and fix them.”
Staff writer Dave Gustafson contributed to this report.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.