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More Deaths Prompt Shutdown of W.Va. Mines


West Virginia's Governor, Joe Manchin, is asking the state's coal mines to temporarily shut down for safety reviews. The request follows two more miners' deaths. Since January there have been 16 mine-related deaths in the state.

Anna Sale, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, reports.

ANNA SALE reporting:

Yesterday, one miner died in an underground mine when roof supports failed. In a separate incident in the same county, a bulldozer operator died in a gas fire on a surface mine. Governor Manchin responded by calling for all mining to stop to allow a focus on safety.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, 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 of our procedures have been looked at again, there's some things that need to fix, to repair, whatever it needs to be done, safety is going to be the foremost thing in the West Virginia mind right now. And we're not going to produce another lump of coal until this is done.

SALE: The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, followed the Governor's call by urging all mines nationwide to conduct safety stand-downs on Monday. MSHA estimates that these reviews should take about an hour. Governor Manchin asked that operators conduct their routine safety refreshers at the start of each shift, to review the hazards and safety protocols in the mine.

Governor MANCHIN: Every mine is responsible to go through their safety procedures. We're saying now, across the state, simultaneously, they're all going to go through it now.

SALE: The State Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training does quarterly safety inspections at all mines in West Virginia. But Governor Manchin called for a new cycle of inspections to start immediately.

Governor MANCHIN: If we have any unsafe conditions, we're going to rebuild them. And if there's an unsafe condition, we're not going to have a miner producing coal there, I can tell you that.

SALE: The Federal Miners' Safety and Health Association will help with the inspections. The West Virginia Coal Association, which represents coal companies, voiced support for Manchin's actions. Chris Hamilton is the group's senior vice president.

Mr. CHRIS HAMILTON (Vice President, West Virginia Coal Association): I think the whole industry is still grieving the events of the last couple weeks, and are a little perplexed at this point in time.

SALE: Hamilton called the string of fatal accidents in mines an anomaly. He said companies have no reason to cut corners on safety, because the market for coal is currently strong.

Mr. HAMILTON: Right now there's a little bit of cushion. We're seeing more of the profit line going into safety, going into equipment, and things of that nature.

SALE: Massey Energy, which owns both the Logan County mine where two miners died last month and the surface mine where a worker died yesterday, is not a member of the West Virginia Coal Association. Massey did not respond to a call for comment.

The United Mine Workers also supports the Governor's response. Wednesday was the first fatal accident at a union mine in West Virginia this year. Phil Smith is the spokesman for the UMW.

Mr. PHIL SMITH: I'm not sure we know what is going on, but I think it's very important we find out what we can do to stop this unbelievable outbreak of fatalities in America's coal mines.

SALE: The union also called for its safety experts to do additional inspections in all union mines.

Mr. SMITH: The state agency, they have limited resources, as do we, and as does the federal government. But the difference is that, it's going to take them several days, if not weeks, to get around to every mine in West Virginia, because they just have very limited resources. Our local union safety committees are right there and are going to be going to work right away.

SALE: Before reports of yesterday's accidents, West Virginia's congressional delegation introduced federal mine safety legislation. It's similar to a new law in West Virginia in that it would require additional air supplies and communication devices. It also calls for every mine to have an onsite rescue team, tougher penalties and fines for safety violations, and a new miner ombudsmen position within the Department of Labor that's to be politically neutral.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale, in Charleston, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Sale