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Mine inspections stepped up

Dozens of state inspectors fanned out across West Virginia’s coalfields Thursday, in an effort to stop a string of accidents that has already killed 16 state miners this year.

An additional 100 federal safety officials were expected to join the effort by Monday, doubling the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s presence in the state.

In just 32 days, 2006 has already become the West Virginia coal industry’s deadliest year in more than a decade.

Pressure continued to mount for additional action by the state and MSHA, following two deaths on Wednesday that prompted Gov. Joe Manchin to order what he called a “safety stand down.”

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., took to the Senate floor Thursday morning to demand immediate action on a bill to require MSHA to write numerous new safety and rescue rules.

“We cannot delay in responding,” Byrd said. “It is possible that mine safety protections have eroded so much in the past few years that these accidents are going to continue to happen again and again.”

The state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training on Thursday identified the victims of the previous day’s two fatal accidents in Boone County.

Edmund Vance, 46, of Bim, was killed when part of an underground mine wall collapsed on him at Long Branch Energy’s No. 18 Tunnel near Wharton. Vance is survived by a wife and two children.

Paul Moss, 58, of Sissonville, was killed when his dozer hit a gas line at Massey Energy’s Black Castle Surface Mine near Williams Mountain. Moss is survived by his wife and one child.

Doug Conaway, director of the state mine safety office, said that Moss hit a 16-inch natural gas transmission line while clearing trees and brush in preparation for strip mining.

Conaway said that investigators will try to figure out how the Massey operation allowed workers using dozers to get that close to a large gas line.

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Conaway said. “I don’t know if that line was marked up there or not.”

Conaway said that his agency’s roughly 75 inspectors early Thursday morning started a new round of complete mine inspections ordered by Manchin.

State officials are also participating in safety lectures, which Manchin asked each mine operator to conduct prior to every production shift.

Manchin called for the “safety shutdown” during a hastily called press conference late Wednesday afternoon.

At first, the governor’s statements suggested that he was ordering all state mines to close until inspectors performed a thorough review of each operation’s safety practices.

“I am calling on the industry to curtail production activity immediately,” Manchin said at the start of his press conference.

But administration officials and industry representatives quickly dispelled that notion. They said that the governor’s intention was for production to be delayed temporarily while miners received additional safety instruction.

In October 2001, then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski took a similar action nationwide following a series of fatalities in August of that year and the death of 13 miners in a series of explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala.

As part of his “Stand Down for Safety” program, Lauriski sent MSHA personnel into mines to discuss “best practices” that can help reduce accidents.

Two months after he launched that program, though, Lauriski halted work on more than a dozen new mine safety regulations started by the Clinton administration.

Hours after Manchin’s news conference, acting MSHA chief David G. Dye announced that his agency would hold another nationwide “Stand Down for Safety” on Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, MSHA announced that it was sending an additional 100 inspectors — on top of the 113 agency inspectors already assigned to West Virginia — to help state officials.

“We are very concerned about what is going on in West Virginia,” acting deputy MSHA administrator Bob Friend told reporters in a brief conference call.

Conaway, though, said that only 30 of the additional 100 MSHA staffers are inspectors. The others are educational specialists who will take part in safety lectures during Monday’s stand down, he said.

During his floor speech Thursday, Byrd said that he does not believe that safety lectures alone will not be enough.

“I must say that shutting down the mines for one hour is not a serious solution,” Byrd said. “It may be a time out for safety, but it is not time enough for meaningful safety.”

The Bush administration has declined to say if it supports the legislation introduced by Byrd and other members of the West Virginia delegation. Byrd urged his fellow senators to act quickly or face potentially serious problems.

“The longer we wait to act in the Congress, the more likely another fatality will occur,” Byrd said. “The longer we wait to act, the greater the threat to our energy infrastructure.

“If these tragedies continue, then mines could be closed, and coal and energy production could falter,” Byrd said. “The consequences could ripple through the national economy.”

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said that the union welcomes any opportunity to educate miners about safety.

“But it is no substitute for full and complete safety inspections,” Smith said. “This is no substitute for increased enforcement of existing mine safety laws.

“It is not substitute for increased inspections and more thorough inspections of mines,” Smith said. “It is not substitute for increased funding so we can have more inspectors, and it does not address the systematic problem at MSHA headquarters of the foxes guarding the henhouse.”

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


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