Two more mine workers were killed in separate accidents in West Virginia Feb. 1, prompting Gov. Joe Manchin to call on all coal companies to cease production until safety checks can be conducted. “We’re going to check for unsafe conditions, and we’re going to correct any unsafe conditions before we mine another lump of coal,” Manchin said.

The deaths brought to 16 the number of mining-related fatalities in West Virginia since Jan. 2.

Grief and anger throughout the Appalachian region is driving reforms in state mine safety laws and echoing in the chambers of the U.S. Senate.

Over 2,000 miners, their families and residents lined the road in the tiny hamlet of Man, W.Va., Jan. 29, to pay last respects to Don I. “Rizzle” Bragg, 33, one of two coal miners who died in a fire in Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, Jan. 19. Many held signs reading, “West Virginia loves our coal miners.”

Bragg and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield, 47, were killed in the nonunion Massey mine just weeks after the Jan. 2 explosion at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine that took the lives of 12 miners. January was the deadliest month in nearly 40 years for coal miners.

Meanwhile, 72 potash miners were rescued after being trapped by an underground fire and toxic smoke in Saskatchewan, Canada, Jan. 30. The miners escaped to airtight underground “safe rooms” packed with oxygen, food and water sufficient for them to survive several days. Unlike their brothers in West Virginia, the Canadian miners had communication equipment as well. “It really looks like a textbook recovery to me,” commented Davitt McAteer, the former Clinton administration Mine Safety and Health Administration head who is leading West Virginia’s investigation into the Sago disaster.

The outpouring of solidarity with the miners pushed the West Virginia Legislature to act before January had ended, enacting reforms in the state’s safety laws including requiring tracking and communication devices, adequate oxygen and improved rescue response time.

Pennsylvania’s 7,000 miners have been battling the Pennsylvania Coal Association to win reforms in the state’s 1961 mine safety laws. Reform legislation was drafted following the 2002 Quecreek mine accident, where nine miners trapped underground by a flood were successfully rescued. Among its many proposed changes is the creation of a three-member panel to update safety regulations based on new technology. Unlike West Virginia, where the Legislature enacted reforms after only one day of debate, Pennsylvania’s bill has languished for three years. A voted is expected in March.

The situation is so bad that even Republicans are feeling the heat. “How can we not do this?” said Republican state Rep. Richard Kasunic, the bill’s sponsor, pleading for support from fellow legislators. “This is about saving lives. If we fail, it would be a travesty to those men and women who have lost their lives in mines and those who have been hurt and maimed in the mines.”

A week after the Bush administration’s acting MSHA head David Dye walked out of a Senate hearing on the Sago disaster, the Senate is considering Bush’s nomination of coal operator Richard Sticker as permanent director of the agency. MSHA records indicate that Stickler was general superintendent and chief health and safety officer for BethEnergy, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, with a record of three miner deaths. The worst accident killed Donald J. Smith and injured eight other miners at BethEnergy’s Cambria Slope Mine 3, near Ebensburg, Pa.

“Congress determined in 1969 that the coal industry could not and should not police itself in matters of safety and health in America’s coal mines,” said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. “Yet today MSHA is riddled with former coal company executives. The foxes are guarding the hen house and the confirmation of Mr. Stickler would make matters worse for coal miners.”

Roberts quoted the first sentence of the 1969 Act: “The first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource — the miner.” He continued, “It doesn’t say the first priority should be higher profits, it doesn’t say the first priority should be increasing production — it says the first priority must be the health and safety of the miner. Yet, we now have a situation where the very people who are supposed to be in charge of enforcing mine safety used to be sitting in coal company offices figuring out how to skate around safety regulations to increase production and profits. Mr. Stickler is a prime example of that.”

Senators, both Republican and Democrat, sharply grilled Stickler on Jan. 31. “It was patently clear to me that the lack or the absence of innovation in communication and oxygen accessibility is the single biggest difficulty,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told Stickler. “In the case of the Sago Mine, both of those in combination could have allowed us to save those miners.”

Stickler did not comment.

Meanwhile, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) charged the Bush administration with dumping mine safety regulations, stacking MSHA with industry apologists and punishing agency whistleblowers. The charges are detailed in a 14-page report released by Miller chronicling MSHA’s performance since Bush was elected.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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