CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Spurred on by the deaths of 14 miners in West Virginia alone since the beginning of the year, federal, labor and state officials are pledging to make conditions safer for workers toiling underground in the nation's vast coal mines.
One day after the bodies of two missing miners were found in the state's latest tragedy, Gov. Joe Manchin was crafting legislation that he wanted lawmakers to consider Monday.
"I wish we would have done it sooner," Manchin told The Associated Press on Sunday. "I know we would have saved lives in these last two tragedies."
Among the proposals is one that would explore the use of electronic tracking devices on miners to help pinpoint their location, and another to create reserve oxygen stations throughout mines.
A Senate Appropriations subcommittee scheduled hearings on mine safety Monday, and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee that oversees mine safety, also planned a hearing.
West Virginia's congressional delegation and 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.
"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. "We have made dramatic improvements over the last 15 years, but there's more to be done."
The calls for change followed the two deaths at Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine at Melville, the second fatal accident this month at an Appalachian mountain coal mine. Three weeks ago, 12 men died at the Sago Mine near Tallmansville in central West Virginia.
"When people get mad, they're more likely to do something," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "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."
United Mine Workers 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.
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., of Ashland, Ky., 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.
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 Safety and Health 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.
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's proposals would require coal operators to immediately contact a new statewide hot line to report an accident.
It also would require operators to cache extra breathing packs in their mines and issue miners gear to pinpoint their location underground and communicate with the surface in emergencies. Most miners are equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce only about an hour's worth of breathable air.
Coal operators would be fined $100,000 if they fail to report a fire or other accident in the mine within 15 minutes of the event, Manchin said.
"I'm hoping no one pays one penalty," he said.