CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Mine safety legislation was sent to West Virginia lawmakers Monday and congressional hearings got under way as state and federal officials, spurred by the deaths of 14 miners in West Virginia since the beginning of the year, pledged to make conditions safer.
The bodies of the latest two victims were found during the weekend after a fire deep inside a mine in southern West Virginia. Twelve others died in early January following an explosion in the northern part of the state.
"These deaths, I believe, were entirely preventable," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said Monday at a hearing in Washington. "And we owe the families of these deceased and noble and great and brave men a hard look of what happened and why."
Legislation drafted during the weekend by Gov. Joe Manchin's staff was sent to the state Senate during the morning. Manchin called for it to be passed before legislators go home at the end of the day.
"I think it's a very important message to send to those grieving families across the state of West Virginia, and across the nation, that we are serious about mine safety," state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin told senators after the bill was introduced. Tomblin's district includes Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine at Melville, site of last week's mine fire.
Manchin's proposals would require mine operators to immediately call a new state hot line to report an accident or face a $100,000 fine. It also would require operators to cache extra breathing packs inside their mines and issue miners gear to pinpoint their location underground and allow them to communicate with the surface in emergencies.
It wasn't clear if the Democratic governor could get the votes to pass the measures in a single day. A vote to suspend the rules and pass a bill that fast would require a four-fifths vote in each chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse predicted "complete Republican support," but he said that if the measures are too complex lawmakers should spend more time on them.
"I don't see people marching on the Capitol if these don't get passed in one day," said Sprouse.
In Washington, Byrd spoke at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on mine safety. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also planned a hearing.
Byrd criticized the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, saying he had no complaint with "the rescuers who risked their lives" trying to save trapped miners but with "the leadership in MSHA's Washington office."
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 National Mining Association and the United Mine Workers of America said Sunday that they, too, want a major overhaul of state and federal mine safety laws.
Nationally, there were 22 mine deaths in 2005, a record low. Three of them were in West Virginia, the nation's second-largest coal producer.
If Congress takes action, it would be the third time that a West Virginia tragedy has had nationwide ramifications.
The Mine Safety and Health Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion at Farmington killed 78 miners, including an uncle of Manchin. Federal laws governing the construction of mine drainage settling ponds were adopted after 125 people where killed when an impoundment gave way in 1972, spilling a flash flood that ripped through communities along Buffalo Creek, less than 20 miles from the Alma mine.