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Mine gear rules on track, Manchin says

Gov. Joe Manchin promised Tuesday that he was not backing off a pledge to give West Virginia coal miners the tools they need to escape future fires and explosions.

Manchin said implementation of his new mine rescue law is on track, despite delays and the appointment of a task force to review the required equipment.

“We have legislation in place,” Manchin said in an interview. “It mandates that it must be done.”

Manchin discussed his mine safety agenda on the eve of a statewide forum on the new law today at the Charleston Civic Center.

The forum is sponsored by the Governor’s Office, the West Virginia University National Research Center for Coal and Energy, and a labor-industry group called The Coal Forum. It starts at 9 a.m.

Last month, Manchin pushed through the Legislature a law to require mine operators to provide additional emergency oxygen supplies, wireless communications equipment and miner tracking devices.

On Monday, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training filed an updated rule that delays the requirements for additional oxygen and the other equipment. The rule also calls for a 90-day study of the equipment by a labor-industry task force appointed by the governor. In addition, the rule would add a requirement that mine operators install oxygen-equipped rescue chambers in all underground mines.

In Tuesday’s interview, Manchin acknowledged that some industry officials are trying to discredit the law by arguing that the required equipment will not work.

“Anybody who tells me that something can’t be done ... I have to look at my own soul,” Manchin said. “I made a promise. I committed the state to all of those families that their loved ones didn’t die in vain.”

Manchin pushed the new safety legislation after the deaths of 12 miners in the Sago Mine disaster in early January and two miners in a fire Jan. 19 at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

Two more mine deaths — both on Feb. 1 in Boone County — already have made 2006 the most deadly year in West Virginia’s coal industry since 1995, when 16 workers also perished.

Manchin has promised additional safety legislation following a review of existing rules, and says he will see to it that the state’s mines are the safest in the country.

“Everybody needs to understand that safety is the foremost thing,” the governor said Tuesday, after returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., for a National Governors Association meeting.

Manchin added that he is confident that the state’s new law will prompt increased production of existing safety gear and more innovations in that equipment.

“There are going to be more things brought to the general market because of the requirements we have put on safety,” Manchin said.

Last week, Manchin’s choice as temporary state mine safety chief, James M. Dean, questioned the reliability of the wireless communicators, called Personal Emergency Devices, and the miner tracking systems.

In a separate interview Tuesday, Manchin mine safety adviser Davitt McAteer said questions about the equipment’s reliability needed to be put to rest.

“They are reliable devices,” said McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration.

“Their reliability is much like the reliability of devices such as the continuous miner and the belt and the longwall,” McAteer said. “There will be times when those devices need to be maintained and put back in operation.”

McAteer noted that some U.S. coal mines already used PEDs for up to 50 text messages per day. Operators use them to direct underground work, not just for emergency evacuations, McAteer said.

“Does it provide perfect, two-way communications? The answer is no,” McAteer said. “But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. These need to be put into the mines.”

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


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