In death, 14 West Virginia coal miners have achieved something that just a month ago seemed an unlikely goal: Labor, industry and lawmakers are united in demanding that a dangerous subterranean occupation be made safer.
Hours after the bodies of two missing miners were found Saturday in Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine at Melville, Gov. Joe Manchin and West Virginia's congressional delegation called for a major overhaul of state and federal mine safety laws.
Both the National Mining Association and the United Mine Workers of America said Sunday that they, too, will press for change.
"This is a time for all of us who share responsibility for mining safety to come together and look for ways to make mining safer," said Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association in Washington. "We have made dramatic improvements over the last 15 years, but there's more to be done."
The bodies of Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47, were found Saturday, two days after a conveyor belt caught fire inside the Alma mine in southern West Virginia. Their deaths came just weeks after a Jan. 2 mine explosion that led to the deaths of 12 other miners exposed to carbon monoxide inside the Sago Mine in the northern part of the state.
UMW president Cecil Roberts said Congress and state legislatures must take steps to ensure existing regulations are strictly enforced.
"We must also develop new initiatives that will give every miner a vastly improved chance to walk out of a mine after an accident, alive and well and safe in the arms of their loved ones," he said.
A Senate Appropriations subcommittee schedules hearings on mine safety Monday, and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees mine safety, also planned a hearing.
Nationally, there were 22 mine deaths in 2005, a record low. Three of those were in West Virginia, the nation's second-largest coal producer.
Manchin said he would ask West Virginia lawmakers on Monday to pass three bills being written over the weekend to improve rapid response to mine emergencies and set up electronic tracking technology for lost miners and reserve oxygen stations underground. He also plans to meet with federal lawmakers in Washington.
"We must put into place commonsense proposals like these that will provide improved safety and security for miners and their families," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, which has the nation's fifth-largest underground coal mine by tons produced.
If Manchin's effort results in federal action, it could be the third time that a West Virginia tragedy has had nationwide ramifications.
The Mine Health and Safety Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion at Farmington that killed 78 miners, including Manchin's uncle. Federal laws governing the construction of mine drainage settling ponds were adopted after 125 people where killed when an impoundment gave way in 1972 and flooded communities along Buffalo Creek, less than 20 miles from the Alma mine.
"When people get mad, they're more likely to do something," said Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who was with Manchin when the families of the Alma miners were told the men were dead. "When I go back to Congress ... what's happened at Sago and what's happened here, there's got to be a lot of mad people."
The Bush administration is reviewing safety equipment in mines after scrapping similar initiatives started by the Clinton administration. Miners' advocates said pulling those initiatives stopped potentially important safety rules from becoming reality; the Republicans cited changing priorities and resource concerns.
The owner of the Sago Mine, International Coal Group Inc., isn't waiting for federal action. President Ben Hatfield says he's already formed a team to pursue change.
"We are absolutely going to get better and safer, and better-positioned to react to crisis, regardless of what state and federal agencies say," Hatfield said.
ICG's team will focus on the latest research on mine communication systems and air supplies.
The UMW supports requiring oxygen caches throughout mines, as Peabody Energy and Consol Energy Inc. do at some of their larger mines.
"It's always been our position if it takes you eight hours to walk out of a mine, then there ought to be eight hours of oxygen for you to do that," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the union. The two men who died inside Alma were equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce about an hour's worth of breathable air.
"We need Congress to look at this. We need state legislatures to look at this," he said. "But we need action."
Associated Press writer Sue Lindsey contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Mining Association: http://www.nma.org/
United Mine Workers: http://www.umwa.org/
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