- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — In death, 14 West Virginia coal miners have achieved something that just a month ago seemed an unlikely goal: Unions, industry and lawmakers are united in demanding that a dangerous subterranean occupation be made safer.

Hours after the bodies of two missing miners were found Saturday in Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 mine at Melville, Gov. Joe Manchin III and West Virginia’s congressional delegation called for a major overhaul of state and federal mine safety laws.

Both the National Mining Association (NMA) and the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) said yesterday that they, too, will press for change.

“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 NMA in Washington. “We have made dramatic improvements over the last 15 years, but there’s more to be done.”

The bodies of Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield, 47, were found Saturday, two days after a conveyor belt caught fire inside the Alma mine in southern West Virginia. Their deaths came just weeks after a Jan. 2 mine explosion that led to the deaths of 12 other miners exposed to carbon monoxide inside the Sago Mine in the northern part of the state.

UMW President Cecil Roberts said Congress and state legislatures must take steps to ensure that 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.

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee scheduled hearings on mine safety today, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, who chairs the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees mine safety, also planned a hearing.

Nationally, there were 22 mine deaths last year, a record low. Three of those were in West Virginia, the nation’s second-largest coal producer.

Mr. Manchin said he would ask West Virginia lawmakers today to pass three bills being written over the weekend to improve rapid response to mine emergencies and set up electronic tracking technology for lost miners and reserve oxygen stations underground. He also plans to meet with federal lawmakers in Washington.

If Mr. Manchin’s effort results in federal action, it could be the third time that a West Virginia tragedy has had nationwide ramifications.

The Mine Health and Safety Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion at Farmington that killed 78 miners, including Mr. Manchin’s uncle. Federal laws governing the construction of mine drainage settling ponds were adopted after 125 persons were killed when an impoundment gave way in 1972 and flooded communities along Buffalo Creek, less than 20 miles from the Alma mine.

“When people get mad, they’re more likely to do something,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat. “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.”

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