CHARLESTON, W.Va. – After 14 coal mining deaths in three weeks, West Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed a bill Monday that would require mines to use electronic devices to track trapped miners and stockpile oxygen to keep them alive until help arrives.
The Senate and House both acted with remarkable haste at the urging of Gov. Joe Manchin, who unveiled the legislation about 11 a.m. and pressed lawmakers to pass it by the end of the day.
"We can't afford to wait any longer," Manchin said after two miners were found dead over the weekend in a mine fire in Melville. Three weeks ago, 12 miners died after an explosion at the Sago Mine.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration enforces federal safety laws, but states can pass more stringent mining regulations if they want to.
"I just wish they would have done it before and maybe I'd have my daddy here with me," said Brittany Hatfield, 18, whose father, Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, died last week as a result of the mine fire.
Once the governor signs the bill, coal companies in the nation's No. 2 coal mining state — behind Wyoming — will have to comply by the end of February.
"It could be that it's the quickest response to coal reform in the state's history," said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Manchin's legislation will require improved communications and the electronic tracking of coal miners underground, as well as faster emergency response and the storage of additional air supplies underground.
"No miner's family is going to have to endure what we all endured for 90 hours over the past three weeks," the governor said.
If the 14 miners who died in two accidents since Jan. 2 had been wearing tracking devices, "we could have concentrated all our efforts, all our resources on that one location," Manchin said.
The owner of the Sago Mine, International Coal Group Inc., had not reviewed the bill, but "we certainly support prompt, achievable advancements in technology for communications and rescue to improve miners' safety," said Charles Snavely, a company vice president.
The state Senate passed the bill without debate, 32-0, with two absences. The vote in the House of Delegates was 93-0, with seven absences. Because of slight changes, the bill was sent back to the Senate, where it was again accepted and sent on to Manchin.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Senate opened a hearing on mine safety.
"These deaths I believe were entirely preventable," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (news, bio, voting record), D-W.Va. "And we owe the families of these deceased and noble and great and brave men a hard look of what happened and why."
Manchin's call for quick action came as the state medical examiner was to release the bodies of the 47-year-old Hatfield and Don I. Bragg, 33, to their families.
The two men died last week as a result of a conveyor belt fire at the Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine. Their bodies were found nearly two days after the blaze began to spread thick smoke in the mine.
Their deaths occurred just three weeks after 12 miners died after an explosion at the Sago Mine, about 180 miles away. One of the men was believed to have been killed by the blast itself; the others died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 26, remained hospitalized in a light coma after it took rescuers more than 40 hours to reach him.
In both the Sago Mine disaster and the Melville fire, rescuers were uncertain exactly where the miners were situated inside the mine shaft.
Miners are equipped with portable oxygen canisters that provide breathable air for up to an hour. Manchin wants mining companies to store extra devices throughout the mines. Some companies already provide extra air supplies in their mines.
"No miner will live in fear of ever suffocating in a mine," Manchin vowed Sunday.
Miners would be directed to the storage areas by battery-operated strobe lights in emergencies.
Manchin's proposal also creates a new rapid response system for mine and industrial accidents, and requires coal operators to issue emergency communicators and personal tracking devices to all underground miners.
Most mines in the United States still rely heavily on hard-wired communication systems, which can be damaged in explosions and fires. Rescue teams were unable to communicate with the trapped Sago miners because of such damage.
Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, envisions a wireless system that connects miners to the surface through a series of transponders.
The system would provide one-way, low frequency communication to miners, sending text messages to inform them of an emergency and the best evacuation route. It is used in about 40 mines nationwide, Conaway said. Two-way devices are not reliable, he said.
At the Senate hearing in Washington, David Dye, the acting head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the text-messaging system had some "problems with reliability."
But Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA under the Clinton administration, disagreed. "These devices have proved to be reliable," he said.
The electronic tracking devices would be similar to a system in use in Australia. It uses transponders in the battery covers on miners' head lamps to transmit a unique identification number. Devices mounted within the mine convey that signal to the surface. The system runs on internal batteries, so a power failure would not interfere with it.
Manchin also proposed to fine coal companies $100,000 if they fail to report an emergency within 15 minutes. At Sago, company officials placed the first calls to state and federal safety officials more than an hour after the explosion. It was not immediately clear when the first calls were placed in the Aracoma fire.
"We're not blaming anybody," the governor said. "We're saying there hasn't been enough emphasis on getting the properly trained men and women and the equipment moving quickly enough."