West Virginia Lawmakers Fast-Track Mine Safety Bill

West Virginia legislators Monday passed a series of measures aimed at improving mine safety, in the wake of two tragedies that claimed the lives of 14 West Virginia coal miners and focused nationwide attention on the state of safety in the mining industry.

After taking only 8 hours to review Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed law, the state legislature passed the bill without opposition. The state Senate passed the bill with a 32-0 vote and the vote in the House of Delegates was 93-0.

The governor's legislation calls for extra oxygen to be stored in the mines, electrical tracking devices to be worn by miners and the creation of the Mine and Industrial Accident Rapid Response System a 24-hour hotline coal operators must contact within 15 minutes of an emergency.

Manchin applauded West Virginia lawmakers for quickly passing the package of mine safety regulations.

"We've brought all sides together the legislative leaders from the house and the senate," Manchin said. "This is not a partisan issue this is a West Virginia issue and I hope it becomes an American issue."

Manchin is expected to sign the bill by the end of the week, said spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg. He arrived in Washington today to meet with the state's congressional delegation. He also plans to meet with President Bush to push for tougher mine safety laws on the national level.

U.S. Senate Hearings Underway

In Washington, the first Senate hearings on mine safety started this week. Experts are expected to testify on the effectiveness of current laws and practices and make recommendations for improvements.

Members of the Senate criticized mining officials for not complying with their own safety regulations and also blamed budget cuts at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for the recent deaths in the West Virginia mines.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who chaired the hearing, asked why MSHA had failed to protect the miners' safety. He also said the deaths were "entirely preventable."

David Dye, the acting head of MSHA, responded that it was too early to say exactly how the deaths in West Virginia's Sago Mine had happened. A joint federal-state probe into the Sago Mine explosion is underway.

'It Seems Like We Have to Have a Disaster Before We Act'

The deaths of two miners at the Aracoma Mine and the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago Mine caught the nation's attention and prompted legislative officials to look into tougher safety measures.

Miners, their families and industry representatives said they believe Manchin's mining legislation will improve chances for survival in the event of an underground calamity.

Haskell "Hack" Sheppard, a 29-year-old mining veteran working for the mining company where the two miners died last week, told reporters he is pleased that legislative action is taking place.

"These are probably the greatest things that have ever been thought of," he said. "I'm sure the other miners will support Gov. Manchin's ideas."

Others, such as Rev. Samuel Moore, whose father worked as a miner in West Virginia, said the legislation sounds like something positive but wonders if it's politically motivated.

"People have been calling for these things for a long time," he told reporters. "It seems like we have to have a disaster before we act."

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