DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliot.
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin is pushing for new federal and state mine safety regulations after two recent fatal mine accidents in his state. Yesterday the bodies of two miners were discovered after fire broke out in a coal mine near Melville. This week a senate subcommittee will be holding a hearing on the Sago accident earlier this month in which 12 coal miners were killed. Davitt McAteer will testify at the hearing. He's a former Assistant Secretary of Mine Safety and Health for the U.S. Department of Labor and is advising West Virginia's governor on the investigations into the mine accidents. He joins us on the line. Hello.
Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Vice President, Wheeling Jesuit University): Hello.
ELLIOT: The Governor is proposing legislation aimed at making coal mines safer. Can you tell us what he'd like to see enacted?
Mr. MCATEER: Well, I think the Governor is making three solid proposals immediately. The first is to add a number of self-contained self-rescuers throughout the mine that would allow miners to use the one that's closest to them to get started and then would provide them the ability to go from place to place and get out as they go.
The second is an additional notification requirement that says that the mine operator must notify immediately and if he does not, there would be a substantial penalty. Because one of the things that we have learned is the need to get rescue teams in place quickly is absolutely essential if we're going to have any success at getting miners out.
And the third is the development of a personal emergency device, that the dispatcher, or someone on the surface, as soon as they learn of a problem, can notify-- through text message to each miner--the location of the problem and how best to get out. We're going to propose to require that every miner in West Virginia be provided with one of these by the operator. These first steps are really a step to try to address the rescue and recovery phase of the operations.
ELLIOT: Now even if some of these practices are changed and some of these measures are enacted, isn't enforcement a big part of what you're talking about here?
Mr. MCATEER: Enforcement is always a large part of it, and this is not to say that this mining industry is any worse than any other industry in that sense of the word. But in our case, because the mine is dynamic and moving every 24 hours, you renew your problems and you have to address those.
ELLIOT: How strongly are mines regulated today and how often are they checked for compliance with safety rules?
Mr. MCATEER: In the federal level, the mines are inspected four times a year. The mine safety act is the strongest law in this country in the occupational safety area. The enforcement of it has diminished a little in the past five years. I think the suggestion is that the number of inspectors has decreased and I'm afraid that we've seen a decline in the number of penalties and citations.
ELLIOT: What did you learn from these accidents about responding?
Mr. MCATEER: We've known in this country for a number of years that the rescue system is under stress. We're a victim of our own success. We don't have a lot of mine disasters so we don't have a lot of use of the teams and a lot of practice, etcetera. The numbers of teams have diminished. We have not enhanced the rescue team process and we haven't enhanced the equipment that these fellas have and so we need to look very hard at how to we go and bring new technologies in to detect fires and to be able to detect presence of gases and provide communications systems.
ELLIOT: Davitt McAteer is Vice President of Wheeling Jesuit University and is advising West Virginia's governor on coal mine safety. Thank you, sir.
Mr. MCATEER: You're welcome. Thank you.
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