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States following Manchin on new mine safety rules

Lawmakers and governors in other coal-producing states are following West Virginia’s lead to consider improved coal-mine rescue legislation.

Earlier this week, Gov. Joe Manchin pushed through a bill to provide faster response to mine emergencies and better equip miners to escape from fires and explosions.

Similar measures are now being considered in at least five other states.

The Bush administration has yet to act on a request from Manchin and West Virginia’s congressional delegation that the new rules be adopted on a nationwide basis.

Already, bills are being considered in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The governors of Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois have announced plans of their own for increased safety measures.

Davitt McAteer, Manchin’s new mine safety adviser, told legislative leaders this week that other states are watching what West Virginia is doing.

“The fact that the West Virginia House and Senate moved at such a rapid pace put us in the lead in the nation,” McAteer said during a Thursday briefing. “I was happy as a West Virginian to be in that position.”

Over the past month, coal mine safety has moved to the forefront as a political and public issue. Lawmakers and regulators have been pressed to act following the deaths of 14 West Virginia miners in a three-week period, including 12 who died at the Sago Mine — the worst coal mine disaster in the state in nearly 40 years.

Among the actions being considered in other states:

s In Kentucky, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, and House Democrats said they have separate bills that are both patterned somewhat after West Virginia’s legislation. Also this week in Kentucky, the state’s top mine safety regulator resigned, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.

s In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Dan Surra, a Democrat, plans to introduce legislation to require additional oxygen supplies and electronic tracking of miners’ locations underground.

s In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has promised increased mine inspections, and a Democratic House member has introduced a bill modeled after the West Virginia legislation.

s Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen called for a review of his state’s mine safety laws to determine if any changes similar to West Virginia’s are needed.

s In Virginia, a bill pending in the General Assembly would require wireless communications equipment for underground miners in case of emergencies.

Under the West Virginia legislation, mine operators would be required to provide workers with wireless emergency communicators and tracking devices. The law also would 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, or face $100,000 fines.

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

Details of each of the new measures would be worked out through emergency rules that the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training is writing. Manchin has told the agency to have the rules done by the end of January and implemented in all mines by March 1.

In at least one coal state, industry officials have begun to complain about the speedy push to implement new safety rules. Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, recommended restraint on the part of his state’s lawmakers.

“I think what you’re seeing is a knee-jerk reaction to the disaster in West Virginia,” Caylor told The Associated Press. “We really need to take a deep breath, and look at things objectively.”

Caylor told the Louisville Courier-Journal that his group wants a stronger safety law, and supports the idea of stashing additional oxygen supplies in mines.

“But we have concern about any requirement for wireless tracking and communications because — for now — that technology doesn’t work in a deep mine,” Caylor told the paper.

At the same time, Massey Energy President Don Blankenship said Friday that there “is no known reliable technology” for text messaging or miner tracking underground.”

“We’ve looked at that a number of times, and have, in fact, had, over the last few years, several efforts to perfect such a device,” Blankenship said during a conference call with industry analysts. “A lot of the press coverage and a lot of the statements that have been made about the technology being reliable and being available are not accurate.”

Blankenship also said he is concerned about the requirement to report major mine accidents within 15 minutes. He said it could lead operators to call in false alarms too frequently.

“You don’t want a lot of wolf things — you know, crying wolf before you know you’ve got a problem — and the 15-minute requirement that was introduced runs that risk,” Blankenship said. “Outside of that, it is important that all coal companies report their accidents as timely as they can.”

The second of West Virginia’s two mining accidents this month occurred at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Two miners died in the Jan. 19 conveyor belt fire.

The fire at the Aracoma mine was detected at 5:36 p.m., but not reported to state regulators until 7:45 p.m.

Blankenship said Richmond-based Massey “has long been a safety innovator.”

The Aracoma fire, Blankenship said, was the first time in 25 years that more than one miner has died in a single accident in one of Massey’s underground mines. Two workers were killed in a September 2003 accident at one of Massey’s mountaintop removal strip mines in Boone County.

Blankenship said the Aracoma fire also was the first time in his career that Massey has needed to use a mine rescue crew at one of its underground mines.

Including the two Aracoma miners, at least 13 workers have died on the job in the past five years at Massey mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.

“I think everyone in the industry is willing to do what they can do to make it safer,” Blankenship said. “It’s just that, a lot of times, it is easy for the public to be misled about how doable some of these technologies are.”

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


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