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Manchin seeks belt airway ban

Coal operators in West Virginia should be prohibited from using conveyor belt tunnels to pump fresh air into underground mines, Gov. Joe Manchin said Thursday.

Manchin said he would include a ban on the practice — which safety experts say spreads fires and toxic gases — in the additional mine safety reforms he proposes in the wake of the Sago and Aracoma mine accidents.

“It just doesn’t make any sense, but it’s going to stop,” Manchin said in a brief interview Thursday morning.

Manchin made those comments just after he signed into law a series of mine rescue improvements the Legislature approved earlier this week.

At a Capitol signing ceremony, the governor was joined by family members of three of the 14 miners killed in the Jan. 2 Sago Mine explosion and the Jan. 19 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

“The sacrifice you all have made is going to change mining in this country,” Manchin told the families before giving each family member one of the pens he used to sign Senate Bill 247.

Delorice Bragg, whose husband, Don, died in the Aracoma fire, thanked Manchin for pushing the legislation.

“It eases our hearts and our pain,” Bragg said. “Maybe this will help save other lives.”

John Groves, whose brother Jerry died in the Sago Mine, added, “This is a wonderful thing that he’s done, not just for West Virginia and the coal miners, but the whole country.”

“This will save lives, I’m sure,” Groves said.

Bragg, Groves and the daughter of Sago victim Fred Ware Jr. sat on folding chairs in the governor’s reception area to watch the signing ceremony. Several dozen legislators crowded around Manchin’s podium in front of television cameras.

Under the legislation, mine operators would be required to provide workers with wireless emergency communicators and tracking devices.

The law would also create a Mine and Industrial Rapid Response System, including a 24-hour hot line to get rescue crews to mine emergencies faster. Operators would be required to report fires and explosions within 15 minutes, of face $100,000 fines.

In addition, the law requires operators to store additional supplies of oxygen for miners, on top of the one-hour canisters now required by federal law.

Manchin said he has instructed the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to complete emergency rules to implement the law by the end of January.

The governor said he authorized the hiring of additional legal help to write the rules.

Manchin said he hopes to have all state mines in compliance by March 1.

“It’s on the fast track,” the governor said.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that his group supports Manchin’s actions, but is hearing from members who are worried about the legislation.

“There are concerns,” Hamilton said after attending Thursday’s signing ceremony. “These devices have met with varying degrees of reliability, depending on their location and the geology.”

Hamilton said there are also concerns that manufacturers will not be able to provide enough of the devices quickly enough to meet new legal deadlines. With previous equipment upgrades, regulators have considered coal companies in compliance if they have a valid purchase order showing they are waiting for delivery, Hamilton said.

“We’re going to see in a couple of weeks what we’re into here,” Hamilton.

In the wake of this week’s quick action on the mine rescue bill, legislative leaders said they now need to focus on broader mine safety needs.

“All of what we’ve done dealt with rescuing miners after these things occur,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. “What are we doing to make sure that they don’t occur?”

Manchin promised that there would be more legislation from his administration as investigations into Sago and Aracoma continue.

“You can put a price on a ton of coal, and you can put a price on a longwall apparatus,” Manchin said. “But you can’t put a price on a miner. They’re priceless.”

The ban on using conveyor belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes is the first significant accident-prevention measure that Manchin has mentioned.

Massey Energy used this practice at its Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine near Melville, where Bragg and fellow miner Ellery Hatfield died in a conveyor belt fire that broke out Jan. 19.

When mines are arranged this way, and a fire breaks out, the belt tunnel can carry flames and deadly gases directly to the miners’ work area, or to vital evacuation routes.

Since at least 1969, such mine layouts were generally illegal. Regulators approved them only on a limited, case-by-case basis, and conditioned upon numerous special safeguards. But in 2004, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rewrote federal rules to allow widespread use of such ventilation plans. The move gave the coal industry a regulatory change it had sought for more than 15 years.

Manchin said Thursday that he asked MSHA officials in a meeting earlier this week why they made the 2004 rule change.

“They had no explanation for that,” Manchin said. “I have no idea why they made that change.”

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


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