The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 20, 2013

Tomblin calls for safety stand-down at W.Va. mines

CHARLESTON — A second fatal accident in nine days at the same Raleigh County coal mine prompted Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to order a one-hour stand down Wednesday at all production sites to refresh safety procedures for workers.

John Myles, a 44-year-old Hilltop resident, suffered fatal injuries Tuesday night at the Affinity mine of United Coal, just outside Sophia.

His death was the second there this month and fourth fatal accident in the industry within the past two weeks, and sixth overall in 2 1/2 months, Tomblin told reporters.

“This is not a shutdown of mining operations,” Tomblin said at a news briefing, but emphasized the one-hour break is mandatory, not optional.

“We’re working statewide with industry officials to take necessary precautions.

Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, said the Affinity investigation is in progress but preliminary evidence shows that a shuttle coal operator was cleaning coal ribs and a battery-powered scoop struck Myles.

Just before the accident, he noted, a power outage of unknown origin forced the Affinity crew to be returned to the surface.

The mine had been inspected after the initial death there more than a week ago, he said, and workers were given a safety briefing.

Tomblin said it is too early to say if more safety proposals need to be advanced in this legislative session, “but if it’s recommended that something could have been done more than what we’re already doing to prevent it, then I’m willing to look at it.”

“Obviously, we need to make sure that our mines are as safe as they possibly can be. Until the investigations are complete, I do not have plans to introduce legislation.”

But if some is warranted, he added, “We’ll be happy to do it.”

Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, who once chaired the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, joined others in lauding Tomblin for calling for a temporary stand down at some 500 mining installations.

“I think it’s a great start,” Green said.

“Not only do I commend the governor for taking the lead on this issue, but I commend industry as far as getting on board and realizing safety is the No. 1 priority. We have the best coal miners anywhere and with the history of accidents we’ve had in Raleigh County, I think it’s imperative that we step forward and do what we can to protect the miners who are producing that coal every day.”

It was in Green’s home county that 29 workers perished in 2010 when an explosion ripped through Upper Big Branch mine near the Boone County border in what the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration determined was a “preventable accident.”

Tomblin said he wants operators to drive home a constant theme of the perils inherent with producing coal.

“You’re working in close quarters,” he said at one point. “You’ve got to be at the top of your game at all times.”

House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, an international representative of the United Mine Workers of America, said too many miners have died in West Virginia.

“We need to practice mine safety as much as necessary,” Caputo said.

“This has got to stop. These accidents can stop if coal companies take time at every shift to make men and women that work in this dangerous industry aware of what’s going on.”

Caputo said he was satisfied with the one-hour break at shift changes but pointed out that White intends to press his entire staff into a blanket coverage to look at all mines, seeking to uncover any hazardous conditions.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the industry shares Tomblin’s concerns over the upswing in mining fatalities of late, saying “our full support and resources” are available to assist White inspect the mines and “find out the root causes to develop programs to prevent recurrences.”

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