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Federal mine bill almost ready

Members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation said Monday that they are putting the final touches on what could become a landmark mine safety bill.

The legislation, expected to be introduced Wednesday, would improve mine emergency response and rescue and impose tougher penalties for habitual safety violators.

“Coal miners deserve the best protections and the best safety enforcement possible, and the West Virginia congressional delegation is committed to that mission,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

“Another mine accident could happen today,” Byrd said. “It could happen tomorrow. We cannot afford to sit back and wait for the safety problems to fix themselves.”

The delegation’s mine safety package is expected to include provisions for:

s Rapid notification and response — The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration would be required to establish a rapid notification and response system, and require coal operators to promptly notify the MSHA of mine emergencies. The MSHA would also be required to update and improve mine rescue regulations to help ensure an immediate response.

s Emergency communications and breathing equipment — Coal operators would be required to store additional emergency breathing caches underground. They would also be forced to give miners underground communications equipment and locator devices.

s Penalties — A floor would be set on MSHA penalties so that no fine less than $1,000 could be assessed for safety violations that could cause serious illnesses and injuries. No fine less than $5,500 could be assessed of a habitual violator for a safety problem that could “significantly and substantially” contribute to a safety or health hazard.

s Technology — A science and technology office in MSHA would be created to expedite the introduction of the most advanced health and safety technologies into the mines.

“These actions represent just the first step in our effort to bring about the biggest changes in mine safety in a generation,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are also supporting the legislation.

The MSHA has published a notice seeking suggestions on improving the agency’s mine rescue regulations. But the Bush administration has not indicated if it will support immediate changes in federal law.

The delegation’s federal mine safety changes mirror some of the measures that Gov. Joe Manchin pushed through the state Legislature last week.

Manchin acted after the deaths of 14 West Virginia miners in two accidents in a three-week period, including the 12 miners who died as a result of the Sago Mine explosion — the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

Also Monday, Manchin administration officials said that they have not decided whether the state will hold a public hearing as part of its investigation of the Jan. 19 fire that killed two miners at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

“We haven’t talked that through yet,” said Manchin mine safety adviser Davitt McAteer, who is organizing a public hearing on the Sago Mine disaster.

Also, administration officials said that they are not sure they will meet the governor’s deadline today to finish emergency rules to implement the state’s new mine rescue law.

Lara Ramsburg, the governor’s communications director, said that Manchin general counsel Carte Goodwin and officials from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training are working on the rules. West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley was also enlisted by the administration to assist in writing the rules.

“We want to do it in as timely a manner as possible, but we want to do it right,” Ramsburg said.

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


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