W. Va. Governor Wants Full-Time Mine Rescue Teams

Two months after the deadly Sago Mine accident, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III wants the Bush administration to require that full-time rescue teams be in place to respond to coal mine accidents. Noah Adams discusses mine safety with Ken Ward, a reporter for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, who has written several articles on the subject.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Throughout the coal fields of West Virginia, at the state capital in Charleston, and in U.S. Senate hearings in Washington, D.C., people are trying to figure out how to rescue endangered coal miners. West Virginia's Governor Joe Manchin wants federal action. He's asking for full-time professional rescue teams, closer to each mine.

Ken Ward covers the industry for the Charleston Gazette. Mr. Ward, what is the situation now? The rescue teams are volunteers, and how far away from the mines are they?

Mr. KEN WARD (Reporter, Charleston Gazette): The rescue team members are volunteers, though there is a federal law that was passed in 1969 that requires companies to pay for and provide teams for each of their mines. The regulation that was written several years later to implement that, though, allowed companies to contract out these services, to contract rescue teams that could be anywhere from up to two hours ground travel time from their mines.

So what's happened over the last ten to 15 years is the number of these local, onsite rescue teams has really dwindled, and more and more companies are contracting this out to fewer and fewer rescue stations--in both the coal industry--and the United Mine Workers have been saying, since at least 1995, that this is really crisis. And something needs to be done to provide more of these teams throughout the coalfields.

ADAMS: Governor Manchin said it would be no different than trying to protect New York City with a volunteer fire department.

Mr. WARD: That's what he said.

ADAMS: Twelve men were killed in the Sago Mine disaster early in January. One survived, he's badly injured. They were two miles inside. It took more than 40 hours to get a rescue team to them. Is that due to their situation in travel and notification, or difficulties onsite?

Mr. WARD: The entire answer to that won't be completely clear until the investigation is done. But what is clear is that it did take a number of hours, both for International Coal Group, which operates the Sago Mine, to actually call in anyone to help them--to call the state and federal regulators, to notify them of this accident. And it took several hours after that for rescue teams and regulators to actually arrive onsite to begin this. But they also were delayed by the conditions in the mine.

But certainly, there's no question that if they had had their own rescue team, they would have been there faster. And, in fact, that company, International Coal Group, has its own rescue team at another one of its mines, the Viper Mine in Illinois.

ADAMS: How much would it cost to have a rescue team really close to each coalmine in West Virginia?

Mr. WARD: The numbers that the industry has cited during public hearings on this is around 200, $250,000 a year.

ADAMS: And where would that money come from?

Mr. WARD: Congress, when it passed the 1969 Coalmine Health and Safety Act, Congress declared that the cost of these teams must come from the industry.

ADAMS: The coal industry would pay? Is there any way that there could be a severance tax? Could there be a compromise in the legislature about this?

Mr. WARD: I suppose there could, that would take some congressional action. There is a bill pending in Congress that would require each mine to operate its own rescue team onsite at it, at each of its mines. Coal companies are doing well right now. The price of coal is high. Coal profits are high. And, you know, mine workers and other safety advocates are saying is it's time for these companies to start paying up, by really sponsoring and providing these teams at each of their mines, rather than having this contract system that delays and causes some problems in getting rescue teams to the mines.

And one thing that should be said, in all of this with rescue teams, is the folks that are doing this rescue now really are amazing individuals. It's very dangerous work. They're volunteering their time to train. It's very specialized, difficult, physical training. There was an event in Charleston last week to recognize some of these guys. And what they do is really an amazing, difficult task. The problem is the industries just hasn't ponied up and provided enough of them.

ADAMS: Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, talking with us from the West Virginia State capitol.

Thank you, Mr. Ward.

Mr. WARD: Thank you.

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