This is a partial transcript from "Your World with Neil Cavuto," February 2, 2006, that was edited for clarity.
NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: They're calling it a "stand-down for safety." Coal miners, not only in West Virginia, but throughout the country Thursday, urged to check safety above ground before going underground — this after 16 miners in West Virginia alone died in four separate accidents already this year.
With me now, in his first interview on this dramatic development, the man who owns a lot of those mines, Wilbur Ross. Wilbur is the chairman of the International Coal Group (ICO).
Wilbur, good to have you back.
WILBUR ROSS, CHAIRMAN & CEO, W.L. ROSS & COMPANY: Nice to see you again, Neil.
CAVUTO: What do you make of this move in West Virginia and pretty much across the country?
ROSS: Well, I think that people in administrative positions, in elected positions, feel that they must do something, because it's a very bizarre thing that there have been so many tragedies in such a short time period.
I can assure you, though, that, even without their intervention, everybody in the coal industry, the miners, the supervisors, the executives, have all become even more sensitized to safety issues than they ever were before.
In our own case, at ICG, we have instituted a whole series of further checks before the people go down in the mines. And I spoke at a coal industry conference earlier this week, and urged the industry to get together and really think through what more can be done, both in the area of technology, and in the area of procedures, to try to continue what had been the very good long-term trend of declining accidents and declining, especially, fatalities.
CAVUTO: Still, Wilbur, your critics are saying that you have not done enough for worker safety. You're a shrewd businessman. You come over. You take over a sick company, and that you're skimping on safety. How do you answer that?
ROSS: Well, it's simply inaccurate.
At ICG, specifically at Sago, we were the first company voluntarily to go into the Mine Safety Health Administration's new program for safety enhancement. In addition, we had sent, long before the tragedy, our supervisors all to the Mine Safety Academy in West Virginia, again, voluntarily.
And we also had made very major capital improvements to the Sago Mine, including air shafts and exit facilities, which are the ones that provided the safety for those miners who were fortunate enough to survive the terrible accident.
CAVUTO: But let me ask you, Wilbur, if it is deemed in studies of safety at mines, not only in West Virginia, but throughout the country, that miners should have something like tracking devices, GPS devices, for want of a better term, would you pay for that?
ROSS: Oh, sure. We have said, and, indeed, convened a group of our technical expert, to evaluate all the new technologies. We're sharing data with other coal companies to try to figure out if these work. And part of what I said to the coal mining industry earlier this week is that it's really important that the industry operators get out in front on the issue, because, that way, we're most likely to find the truly correct answer about the best technologies.
The danger is that, because of all the public concern, there will be quick legislation that may be well-intended, but may not really solve the problem, because the legislators are not, themselves, all that familiar with this industry. So, I feel it's very, very important...
CAVUTO: The United Mine Workers say that they are up on this. They wanted a representative, or several, I think, Wilbur, to accompany investigators to some of these mines that have been deemed a safety risk, if you will. And you have been against that, or your company has been against that. Why is that?
ROSS: No, what we were against was the following.
Under the Mine Safety Health Administration rules, workers have the right, if two or more of them get together, to designate a third party to represent the miners in the investigation. In the case of the Sago Mine, which had about 96 employees, more than 90 of them said that they wanted three fellow miners to be their representatives.
Two, apparently — and the reason I say apparently is, the UMWA has refused to share with us the names of the alleged two — but, at most, two said they would like the UMWA to represent them. So, we found ourselves in a situation where 90 percent of our workers wanted different representation from the UMWA. That is really what that was all about.
CAVUTO: Could I ask you this, though? I'm wondering whether this has made you rethink the wisdom of investing in this industry. You're likely going to be slapped with a lot of lawsuits, if you haven't already. And those lawsuits are going to be pricey. And is it worth it?
ROSS: Well, this is a human tragedy, not an economic tragedy.
CAVUTO: I'm well aware of that. I didn't mean to frame it that way, Will, but the fact of the matter is, that is likely what you're facing. What do you think?
ROSS: Well, it could be. Those will take whatever course they take.
Right now, our focus is on trying to do what we can to help the families of the miners and to help improve conditions going forward, to the degree that that's possible.
In terms of the coal industry, it's a very fundamental industry in this country an absolute...
CAVUTO: You stand by it, and you would stick by it?
ROSS: Oh, absolutely.
ROSS: That doesn't mean that we can't try to learn something from these tragedies that will help reduce them in the future. But half the electricity comes from coal.
CAVUTO: Thank you very much, Wilbur Ross.
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