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West Virginia Coal Mining Halted After More Deaths

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West Virginia Coal Mining Halted After More Deaths


West Virginia Coal Mining Halted After More Deaths

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The governor of West Virginia has ordered a temporary halt to coal mining. Two more miners were killed today in two separate accidents. That makes 16 miners who have died on the job in West Virginia since January 2nd. At his news conference, Governor Joe Manchin called on all coal companies to cease production until safety checks can be conducted.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (West Virginia): We're all going to step back and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that we're all on the same page, all our procedures have been, have been looked at again, we're up to speed on everything that we need to do. There's some things that need to fix, repaired, whatever it needs to be done. Safety's gonna be the foremost thing in the West Virginia mine right now and we're not gonna produce another lump of coal until this is done.

SIEGEL: Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting was at the news conference and she joins us now. Anna, first, let's talk about what prompted this. There were three more accidents today and two of them fatal.

ANNA SALE reporting:

Yes, there were three accidents today in West Virginia. One of the fatal accidents was a roof fall in an underground mine in Boon County at a Long Branch Energy coal mine. The second was a surface mine, also in Boon County, it's called Elkron Black Castle (ph) surface mine, it's run by Massey Energy. And in that case, a bulldozer operator hit a gas line, which started a fire and he was killed. The third accident, we don't have a lot of details on, but we do know it was not a fatal accident.

SPIEGEL: Well, during this temporary suspension of mining, what is the state planning to do?

SALE: The governor said that he's calling on inspections to start immediately at all mines, both underground and surface, in this state. The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety, and Training already does quarterly inspections of mines, but he wants to do an additional cycle of inspections to start now. And the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has committed resources, including inspectors, to help get that done quickly.

SPIEGEL: Well, let's say there are, then, inspections of all the mines. How long might that take?

SALE: I talked to the governor's spokeswoman and she said it's not clear how long it will take. There are a lot of mines in West Virginia, but obviously less than three months, since that's the quarterly cycle that the state already operates on.

SPIEGEL: Now, representatives of the coal operators were at the news conference as well. What did they have to say to the governor's announcement of the closure of the mines?

SALE: I talked to representatives from the West Virginia Coal Association and they stood behind the governor as he made his announcement. They were very supportive of the announcement. Chris Hamilton, who's the vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says, that it's, they need to figure out what's going on. To him, it seems like an anomaly, given that the safety record that the state has had over the last couple of years. But they're supportive of stopping production.

SPIEGEL: You say the mine operators say it's an anomaly. How unusual is this? How unusual is it for there to be this sequence of accidents in a row?

SALE: Well, last year in 2005, there were three fatal accidents throughout the whole year in all West Virginia mines. So to have sixteen by February 1st was a bit of a jolt to the industry. It's not clear what's going on. I asked Chris Hamilton of the Coal Association if this is an indication that coal companies have been cutting corners. And he said, right now, coal companies are flush, prices are good for coal, showing profits, so this is not a time they would be cutting corners. This would be a time they'd be investing in it, in safety, was his response.

SPIEGEL: Well, looking ahead to the longer term, there are new safety rules in West Virginia. And in Washington, D.C., there's new legislation on safety introduced.

SALE: Yes, the governor signed the state legislation last Thursday. He said today that his staff will file the legislative rules to accompany that legislation tonight. And also today, the five members of West Virginia's congressional delegation introduced federal mine safety legislation that looks a lot like what the governor proposed: oxygen supplies underground, advanced communication systems for miners underground, each mine to have a rescue team available.

SPIEGEL: And do the coal mine operators, do the companies seem to be open to those reforms or do they claim that they're too expensive?

SALE: The West Virginia Coal Association has supported the governor's bill when he proposed it. As for Massey Energy, which is the state's largest coal producer, which is not a member of the Coal Association, its chairman voiced some concerns about the legislation, but he has not said anything today after these three accidents.

SPIEGEL: Okay, Anna, thank you very much for talk with us.

SALE: Thank you.

SPIEGEL: That's Anna Sale, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, speaking to us from Charleston, West Virginia.

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