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Mine safety chief to quit

The head of West Virginia’s mine safety office plans to resign as soon as Gov. Joe Manchin can name a replacement, the governor’s office announced Tuesday.

Doug Conaway had been director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training since 2001.

Conaway said he had planned to leave state government in January, but agreed to stay on after the Sago Mine disaster.

“I’ve just decided to move on, as I had planned to do earlier,” Conaway said Tuesday evening.

A veteran of more than 20 years with agency, Conaway had become director during the Wise administration and was held over when Manchin took office last year.

“We very much hate to see Mr. Conaway leave this important position and we wish him well in his future endeavors,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union.

Lara Ramsburg, a spokeswoman for Manchin, said Conaway discussed his intention to move on with the governor in late December. At the time, they decided to put a transition plan in place after the holidays.

But after the Sago Mine disaster, Conaway “agreed to put that plan on hold,” Ramsburg said in a news release.

Ramsburg said Manchin would begin that transition process now by proposing a bill to increase the requirements for the mine safety director’s position to include at least one advanced degree related to mine safety.

Conaway holds master’s degrees in safety management and occupational safety and health engineering.

State law does not require any degree in a mine safety-related field. Instead, the law says that anyone holding the job must have a “demonstrated interest and five years’ experience in underground coal mining” and at least three years of experience in a related job.

Prior to being mine safety director, Conaway, served as the agency’s administrator of enforcement and safety.

Before joining state government, Conaway was a laborer and then a fire boss at Eastern Associated Coal’s Federal No. 1 Mine at Fairview.

“Doug has truly done a remarkable job as he’s led the response to and investigation of our recent mining accidents,” Manchin said in a prepared statement. “I wish him much success in his new endeavors, and appreciate his willingness to assist with the transition of directors during what is an important time for the agency and the state.”

Conaway’s resignation comes just days after the West Virginia Coal Association complained to Gov. Joe Manchin about agency rules to implement a new mine rescue law.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the coal group, said companies are upset at the large number of emergency oxygen supplies required by the rules.

“We have expressed concerns about the 16 self-rescuer requirement without providing for a plausible alternative, such as safe rooms or rescue chambers,” Hamilton said.

Under the rules, mine operators would have to provide caches of oxygen devices at various locations in underground mines. Each cache would be required to contain at least 16 rescuers for every miner at the operation.

Hamilton said his group did not discuss these concerns directly with Conaway. Instead, the group raised them during a face-to-face meeting late last week with Manchin and Carte Goodwin, the governor’s chief lawyer, Hamilton said Tuesday afternoon. Conaway also attended that meeting.

Ramsburg said the meeting “in no way has anything to do with this.”

Conaway agreed.

“There wasn’t any one thing,” Conaway said. “There was no question that I wanted to move along.”

Hamilton said Conaway called him over the weekend to tell him that he planned to resign.

“I’m not aware of the particulars surrounding his decision to resign,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said neither his group nor anyone he has heard from in the industry has objected to Conaway’s handling of the mine accidents that have hit West Virginia in the last five weeks.

“It’s been echoed by most of the people involved from all sides that Doug has done an excellent job,” Hamilton said.

Conaway said he is proud of his agency’s collection of inspectors, engineers and support staff, and noted that the state reached a record low of three mining deaths in 2005.

“It’s a good agency,” Conaway said. “We had an excellent year in 2005, but unfortunately in 2006 we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Conaway said he has pledged to continue to work with Manchin after leaving state government to implement the state’s new mine rescue law.

“If you can say there has been any good come out of a tragedy, I think that’s it,” Conaway said of the law.

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


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