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Mine safety projects pitched to foundation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mine safety and health experts from around the country gathered in Charleston Wednesday to begin talking about how $48 million in new research money could be best used to help protect the nation's coal miners.

Three top researchers leading a new foundation put together by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin heard presentations from academics, labor leaders, industry lobbyists and safety advocates at the Embassy Suites about how the money should be spent.

Keith Heasley of West Virginia University, David Karmis of Virginia Tech and David Wegman of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell were named to lead the effort by Goodwin and Alpha Natural Resources.

Alpha is funding the foundation as part of its $209 million deal to avoid any corporate criminal prosecution for the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, which Alpha acquired as part of its purchase of Massey Energy.

"The goal of the foundation is to make sure our best and brightest minds are working on mine safety and have the resources they need," Goodwin said. "If we can accomplish that, we'll see breakthroughs that will transform mining in the years ahead. We want a future where mining is as safe as any other job."

Panel members hope to begin accepting specific research proposals from academics and nonprofit groups in January, and approve the first projects in June. They plan to spent Alpha's $48 million contribution over a six- to eight-year period, providing a significant infusion for coal-mining safety research.

Dennis O'Dell, safety director for the United Mine Workers union, told the research panel that technology and research on keeping miners safe and healthy has lagged behind the focus on increasing coal production.

"Miners can mine the coal faster and at a faster volume, but the problem with this technology is that the safety end of it hasn't kept pace," O'Dell said.

Heasley, Wegman and Karmis heard presentations about a variety of topics, ranging from improved mine rescue efforts to black lung disease, from miner training to ventilation of underground mines.

Steve Sanders, a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Kentucky, said he hopes the panel considers research into how to encourage miners to speak out about their safety concerns.

"One of the causes [of mining accidents] is the attitude that comes down that miners should not complain about unsafe conditions," Sanders said. "That is not a good attitude. Miners have to be the primary advocate for safety in the mines. They have to be encouraged by management to be that advocate."

While neither Goodwin nor Alpha will control how the research funding is distributed, Goodwin said he hopes there is a focus on preventing accidents over responding to them.

"I'm in the prosecution business, but I would prefer to prevent crimes from happening rather than coming in afterward and prosecuting them," Goodwin said.

Wegman said it's going to be important for the panel to figure out how to avoid duplicating ongoing research that is receiving other funding from the government or private industry.

"We had at first what seemed like a lot of money and now seems like very little," Wegman said after hearing presentations on research options. "I'm eager to find our way into an efficient system to identify the priorities."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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