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New mine safety chief questions some rescue gear

Gov. Joe Manchin’s new mine safety director on Monday questioned whether additional rescue gear — now mandated by state law — will really do the job.

“I don’t want to give a family or a miner false hope,” said James M. Dean, interim director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. “There is a question about them working 100 percent of the time.”

Specifically, Dean said that issues remain about the reliability of one-way wireless communicators and miner locators.

In West Virginia, both are now required under a law Manchin pushed through the Legislature following the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire.

During his first interview since being appointed by Manchin a week ago, Dean declined to identify specific problems with either device.

“I’m not going to go into that right now,” Dean said. “I’m not going to answer that.”

Dean noted that one-way pagers, called Personal Emergency Devices, or PEDs, are already used in a handful of West Virginia mines.

“Some of the experience has been good, and some of it has not been so good,” Dean said. Dean said he wondered about forcing coal companies to install one-way text pagers, when NASA is working on two-way communicators that could be adapted for use underground.

“Is that a pipe dream, or can it be a reality?” Dean said.

On Monday, s state holiday, Dean was working to finish up his first full week on the job.

“It’s a difficult time for the state, the nation, the industry and the miners who work in the industry,” Dean said.

In his East End office, Dean had hung a couple of photos of his wife of 19 years and their 11-year-old daughter. He’s currently living in a Charleston hotel, away from his family.

Dean said that he promised Manchin he would serve for a three- to six-month transition period, and declined to say if he would be interested in staying on permanently.

A 41-year-old native of Rowlesburg, Preston County, Dean was most recently directing training programs at the Mining Extension program at West Virginia University and lecturing at WVU’s engineering school.

Dean said his interest in mining came from hearing his elder brother, a miner himself, talk about the job, and from a family tour that took him underground for the first time.

“I found it very interesting,” Dean said. “There are a lot of folks who may not understand what this industry does.”

Dean obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology from Fairmont State College before going on to graduate school at WVU.

Manchin picked Dean to temporarily replace Doug Conaway, who resigned after a 20-year career with the state agency that included five as its director.

With a $9 million budget and about 115 employees — including 75 inspectors — the state mine safety office has been strained by the Sago disaster, the Aracoma fire and two other fatal mining accidents so far this year. Already, 2006 is the deadliest year for the state’s coal industry since 1995, when 16 miners also died on the job.

Conaway has said he discussed stepping down with the governor in December, and that the string of 2006 accidents played no role in his departure.

After Conaway’s resignation, the governor’s office initially said Manchin planned to tighten the requirements for the mine safety director, to require a graduate degree in the field.

But the administration actually weakened the requirements to allow Dean — who has never worked as an underground miner — to hold the post temporarily.

Previously, the director was required to have underground experience. Now, someone with either underground or academic experience can fill the post.

Dean holds a master’s degree in mining engineering from WVU, and has completed his coursework toward a doctorate in the field, according to a resume released by the governor’s office. He has not completed his dissertation, which focuses on a thin-seam highwall mining machine system.

In the interview, Dean said he has been underground many times, but acknowledged that his lack of experience mining coal was an issue.

“Obviously, there was some detriment to that, based on the criticism,” Dean said.

But Dean said a large part of his job would be managerial work. He also plans to help write a job description for a permanent director and perform a nationwide search for someone to fill the post.

Dean said he would also complete, at the governor’s direction, a “top-to-bottom” review of state mining law and rules to see what areas can be improved.

“It’s a monumental task,” Dean said.

Dean said he got a call two weeks ago, on Feb. 6, from WVU President David Hardesty, who told him Manchin had turned to WVU for help in replacing Conaway.

The next day, on Dean’s birthday, Manchin called and offered him the post. It took another week for lawmakers to approve legislation that would allow Dean to serve.

Manchin said that the appointment would allow the agency “to continue ... without skipping a beat” until a permanent director is found.

Dean said that he has been briefed on the state’s four ongoing fatality investigations, and hopes to go underground soon at the Sago and Aracoma mines.

So far, he has spent a lot of time getting to know agency staff and officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“In my mind, mine safety is really a partnership among several groups,” Dean said. “Mine management really sets the tone, the individual miner plays a role, this agency plays a role and MSHA plays a role, and for it to work all of those people have to play a role.”

On the issue of new rescue equipment, Dean said that companies “are coming out of the woodwork” with gadgets that they say will help save miners following fires and explosions.

“How do you test these products to make sure that they are going to work?” Dean said. “We need to ensure that something we say is going to do something is going to do it.”

Dean said that he is not ready to publicly reveal what mine safety issues he believes Manchin and the state should focus on.

“There are a lot of them, but at this point, I’m not sure I want to talk about those,” Dean said. “Hopefully, that will be forthcoming.”

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


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