W. Va. Gov. Urges Safety Checks at Mines

At coal mines across West Virginia, miners started their shifts Thursday with lectures on safety, and officials began the statewide inspections Gov. Joe Manchin had requested for all 544 mines.

Sixteen miners have died on the job in West Virginia already this year, the latest in two separate accidents Wednesday.

Manchin responded to the news of the new deaths with a call for immediate safety checks statewide. An industry group that represents 80 percent of the state's coal producers said Thursday that its members were complying.

Mining companies started conducting safety talks within hours of Manchin's request, said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

"Everybody is going to tailor this to their individual needs and what works best for them," Raney said. "What this does is it brings attention to what is done every day."

Manchin also told state mine regulators to speed up their mine inspection schedule and review all 229 surface and 315 underground mines immediately. Raney said he did not expect the checks to affect coal production in the nation's second largest coal producing state.

While the governor does not have the authority to shut down mines that don't comply, Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said she was unaware of any companies refusing to do so.

In Washington, David Dye, acting U.S. assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, was asking coal mines nationwide to conduct a time-out, or "Stand Down for Safety," on Monday to remind their employees about safety precautions.

The federal Mine Health and Safety Administration also planned to send additional inspectors to West Virginia to help, said agency spokesman Dirk Filpott. The number of federal inspectors being sent wasn't immediately clear, but Manchin said Thursday that he was hoping for at least 30 — that would give the state 100 inspectors.

Both accidents Wednesday were in Boone County, about 50 miles south of the state capital. State mine safety officials said a bulldozer operator was killed at the Black Castle Surface Mine operated by Massey Energy Co. subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co. in Uneeda. An underground miner died after a wall support failed at Long Branch Energy's No. 18 Tunnel Mine in Wharton, officials said.

Another miner broke his leg Wednesday when another mine's wall support collapsed, said Caryn Gresham with the state mine office.

Last month, 12 miners died after an explosion exposed them to carbon monoxide inside International Coal Group Inc.'s Sago Mine. Less than three weeks later, two miners died in a fire at Massey's Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine in Melville.

In 2005, the nationwide death toll at coal mines was 14 at underground mines and 8 at surface mines. West Virginia had its lowest total on record with three.

News of the deaths came just before Manchin's office filed the emergency rules needed to carry out the mine safety law he signed last week. The legislation was passed by state lawmakers in response to January's mine disasters.

The sole survivor of the Sago disaster, Randal McCloy Jr., is recovering at a Morgantown rehabilitation hospital.

The new safety law requires coal companies to provide miners with emergency communicators and tracking devices, and to store extra air supplies underground. That legislation also mandates that companies report mine accidents within 15 minutes or face a $100,000 penalty.

West Virginia's congressional delegation is pushing for the same at the national level. Its members introduced legislation that would require the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to toughen fines, enforce existing rules and issue new ones to give trapped miners a better chance of surviving fires, explosions and cave-ins.

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., urged Congress on Thursday to swiftly to pass that bill.

"If these tragedies continue, mines could be closed and coal and energy production could falter ... the consequences could ripple throughout the nation's economy," he said. "We cannot delay."

The mines where the two miners died Wednesday had different safety records. The Long Branch mine employs around 59 people and produced 371,844 tons of coal last year, according to MSHA. Eight workers were injured during the first nine months of 2005. When measured by hours worked, the mine's injury rate was more than two and a half times the national average for a mine of that type, according to MSHA figures.

Federal inspectors issued 50 citations against the mine last year. While penalties have yet to be proposed for 13 of those citations, penalties for the others total $3,677.

The Black Castle mine has about 186 workers and yielded 2.7 million tons of coal last year, MSHA figures show. With only two employees injured during the first three quarters of 2005, its injury rate fell below the national average for that mine type. It was issued 63 citations in 2005, resulting in $14,830 in penalties.