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Professional rescuers sought

Gov. Joe Manchin said Thursday that the Bush administration should require full-time, professional rescue teams to respond to fires and explosions in the nation’s coal mines.

Manchin called for the action during a Charleston event to honor mine rescue teams from across West Virginia.

The governor praised rescue team members, but noted that few mines have their own teams and all members are volunteers.

Manchin said January’s two mine accidents showed the volunteer system is inadequate. More teams are needed at strategic locations around the coalfields, the governor said.

“It would be no different than trying to protect New York City with a volunteer fire department,” Manchin said later in an interview.

Also Thursday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., pressed Bush administration officials on why they have not published a rule to require additional emergency oxygen supplies in the nation’s underground mines.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced plans for the rule Feb. 7, and said it would be implemented as an “emergency” standard.

So far, the rule has not been published in the Federal Register and is still under review by the White House.

“When are you going to get off your duff?” Byrd asked David Dye, the acting assistant labor secretary for MSHA, during a Senate committee hearing.

Dye replied, “I don’t think I’m on my duff, senator. But I share your frustration. The minute we get that back [from the White House], I will send it to the Federal Register.”

Asked to explain the delay in review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, Dye said, “It’s part of the normal clearance process that all regulations have to go through review by OMB. They’re moving very fast on this one.”

During the Washington hearing, rescue team members from various coal states joined United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts in calling for improvements in the mine rescue system.

“Why do we not have more mine rescue teams?” Roberts asked lawmakers. “What is going to happen before long is we’re going to lose one of these mine rescue teams underground because there are not enough of them.”

In Charleston, Manchin joined an overflow crowd at the state Cultural Center for the industry group Friends of Coal’s annual day at the Legislature.

In previous years, miners and other industry workers held rallies at the Capitol to oppose tougher regulation of mountaintop removal and demand increased weight limits for coal trucks.

This year, a huge banner outside the Cultural Center auditorium said, “Friends of Coal Day: Safety Matters.”

Inside, industry officials and former football coaches Don Nehlen and Bob Pruett praised the training and dedication of mine rescue team workers.

“The Army has its Green Berets; the Navy has its SEALs,” Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told the crowd. “And the coal industry has its mine rescue teams. You truly are the elite forces of our industry.”

Rescue teams each received a plaque, and members were given Friends of Coal hats and uniform patches that said, “Friends of Coal, Guardians of Safety. Mine Rescue.”

In 1977, Congress required the newly created U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to write rules “to provide that mine rescue teams shall be available for rescue and recovery work at each underground coal mine or other mine in the event of an emergency.” Lawmakers required coal companies to pick up the tab.

When it wrote those rules, MSHA required all mines to provide for two rescue teams within “two hours ground travel time.” Companies could contract out the service, rather than having their own, on-site teams.

Along with retirements of long-time rescue team members, contracting of teams has helped fuel a major decline in the number of safety teams nationwide.

Since at least 1995, industry and labor officials have said the matter is a crisis, and urged MSHA to do something about it. The Clinton administration began a review of the issue, but the project was dropped after President George W. Bush took office.

Over the past 30 years, the number of teams taking part in the once-popular national mine safety contest has dropped by nearly 70 percent, according to MSHA records.

At Thursday’s event, Coal Association Chairman Randy Hansford recalled that when he formed a new team at Riverton Coal five years ago, it was the first new mine rescue team in the country in more than 15 years.

Byrd and the rest of West Virginia’s congressional delegation have introduced legislation to require all coal mines to employ their own rescue teams.

At the same time, MSHA has asked for public comments on how it could improve the mine rescue system.

Manchin said he told Bush about the rescue team shortage during a phone conversation after the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire.

“I don’t know where it stands, or if they are going to do anything about it,” Manchin said.

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


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