WASHINGTON – Senators called for immediate improvements to mine safety on Monday, and asked government and coal industry officials why it took so long for rescue workers to arrive at the scene to help 13 miners trapped early this month deep underground in West Virginia.
"It took 11 hours before the first team could even begin the rescue effort at Sago," said West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. "These deaths, I believe, were entirely preventable, and we owe the families of these noble, great and deceased men a hard look at what happened and why."
In the worst coal mining accident in more than 35 years, 12 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning after getting trapped in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., following an explosion on Jan. 2. After 41 hours, the 12 deceased miners and Randal McCloy Jr., 26, the only survivor, were pulled out of the mine. McCloy remains in a light coma three weeks after being rescued.
International Coal Group Chief Executive Ben Hatfield said the rescue took longer to coordinate because the accident occurred on New Year's weekend. Officials were not in the office, but left additional phone numbers to be reached on their voice mails, he said. International Coal Group began managing the Sago Mine in June 2005 after acquiring it in a merger in November 2004.
International Coal Group has called the mine a "safe operation" despite documents released by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration last week that showed 17 of the 208 alleged safety violations in 2005 were listed as serious. The mine was cited 208 times for alleged safety violations in 2005, compared to 68 citations in 2004. The mine's injury rate was nearly three times higher than the national average.
Last week, West Virginia lawmakers joined calls for improved mine safety hours after rescue workers found two bodies deep inside an underground coal mine in Melville, W.Va. The two miners were discovered missing Thursday night after a fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Alma No. 1 Mine operated by Massey Energy subsidiary Aracoma Coal. The mine is located about 60 miles southwest of Charleston. Nineteen other miners escaped.
So far this year, 16 miners have been killed in accidents, according to MHSA. Monday's hearing, held by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, is likely to be followed by a series of congressional activities.
David Dye, acting assistant labor secretary, told the subcommittee that the government is investigating the mine accidents but it will be several weeks before he can answer questions about why it took two hours for the federal government to be notified and later respond to the accident. Investigators were able to enter the Sago Mine for the first time on Saturday after it was found to be safe following the dispersal of toxic gases.
Dye said the department is seeking public comment on new technologies to be discussed at a future public hearing. Other measures include a proposal for stiffer penalties for mine safety violations and more funds for technology in the fiscal year 2007 budget request.
Other witnesses told senators it was important to address mine safety, which had its last congressional hearing in 2001. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents about 45,000 U.S. miners, testified that better safety measures are needed to prevent future tragedies.
"We have known for years that we have needed additional rescue teams," Roberts said.
At the hearing, Byrd criticized budget cuts by the Bush administration to the MSHA, the regulatory agency that oversees safety enforcement and health conditions in the nation's mines. The Democrat said President Bush called him at home this weekend on another matter, and then asked the senator if there was anything he could do regarding the mines. Byrd said he told the president, "Yes, stop cutting the coal health and safety enforcement budget."
Besides new and improved safety measures, stiffer penalties for safety violations and a larger budget for the MHSA, senators also urged mining companies to use new technologies to aid in emergencies.
"Safety always seems to have taken a back seat in mines," Sen. Tom Harkin told FOXNews.com. "I want to figure out how we get the mine companies to adopt the latest technologies for location and communication."
New technologies being used in some mines could help prevent such disasters that led to the deaths of the 14 West Virginia miners, Harkin said. During the hearing, the Iowa Democrat showed two devices that he said could help protect miners. Fourteen mines out of 15,000 in the United States use such devices, said industry executives.
Harkin held up one new technology that costs about $20. The tracking device enables miners to be located inside the mine. Another item he showed was an orange battery pack and flashlight attached to a digital messaging system that allows miners to text message crews above ground to alert them to an emergency.
Harkin said blame for the accidents lies with the industry and Bush administration, which dropped new measures to improve safety and enforcement in December 2001.
"If they won't do it, we gotta tell them to do it," Harkin said, referring to the mine companies.
But ICG's Hatfield said in the event of an explosion, miners could be buried 300 feet below rock that could interfere with their ability to send messages to crews above ground. Hatfield, who briefed families and reporters during and after the incident, called the Sago mine explosion an "emotional roller coaster."
At 11:46 p.m. on Jan. 3, families and friends received reports that the 12 miners trapped in the mine had been found alive. Just 45 minutes later, however, MSHA revealed that all but one of the 13 miners had died.
"We deeply regret the pain caused by the early and erroneous communications with families. There was never any intent to misinform, to mislead or raise false hopes," Hatfield said.
ICG has compensated funeral expenses of the 12 miners, confirmed insurance benefits to the families, extended salaries of the deceased for six months and given families medical insurance coverage for 18 months, Hatfield said.
West Virginia Lawmakers Move Fast to Address Mine Safety
Meanwhile, Gov. Joe Manchin and the West Virginia congressional delegation demanded a major overhaul of state and federal mine safety laws. Manchin told FOX News on Monday morning that mining is important to the nation, but changes are needed.
"Mining is going to continue, it's going to be safe though," he said.
West Virginia's state Senate voted Monday on a fast-tracked bill to improve mine safety. The unanimously passed legislation requires companies to give miners tracking tools and extra breathing devices for emergencies. State House lawmakers passed the legislation later in the day.
Federal legislation, which has yet to be drafted, would likely include measures that would give harsher penalties for violations, shut down partial or entire mines for excessive violations and require new technological devices for miners, said Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter.
After Dye's testimony, Specter, R-Pa., asked the Labor Department official to remain at the hearing in case additional questions needed to be answered following the second panel of witnesses. But Dye told Specter that he needed to leave because of other mine incidents and "pressing matters."
"We don't think we're imposing too much to keep you here for another hour," Specter said. Still, Dye left the hearing room.
After the hearing, Specter said he was "a little surprised and a little disappointed" that Dye didn't stay to answer additional questions. He said he could address that issue at future hearings, perhaps through a subpoena that would force Dye to remain throughout the hearing.