PITTSBURGH — Across the coal fields Feb. 6, production stopped for one hour as miners and safety experts, some company and some union, met to review and improve safety procedures following the deaths of 18 coal miners in the first 32 days of 2006. That same day the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) sent 100 inspectors to West Virginia to determine if the mines in the nation’s second largest coal-producing state were safe. The unprecedented action was a response from Big Coal and MSHA to a plea from West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who called for a complete shutdown Feb. 1 until miners’ safety could be guaranteed. Of the 18 miners killed on the job, 17 worked in West Virginia mines. The other miner died in Kentucky.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts ordered all union safety committees to inspect every union mine in West Virginia. “We support Gov. Manchin’s call for a stand-down of mines in West Virginia until there is a thorough review of safety procedures,” Roberts said. “At nonunion mines that means the governor will have to rely on the word of the operator that the mine has carried out his directive. The UMWA will be taking that a step further at union mines with the order for a full safety inspection.”

Pressure from miners, their families and communities, the UMWA and elected officials forced MSHA, dominated by Bush-appointed coal company executives, to enact previously dumped safety regulations. In a Feb. 7 press release, MSHA announced that Clinton-era rules it dumped in 2001 would be restored, requiring coal companies to provide emergency oxygen supplies, escape routes and additional training. The safety regulations become law when published in the Federal Registry. MSHA did not say when publication would occur.

“This emergency rule-making will require the use of proven technologies and techniques to help miners evacuate quickly and safety after a mine accident,” said MSHA acting Director David Dye after being forced to restore the rules.

Dye crossed swords with U.S. Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) during a Washington hearing following the Jan. 2 Sago disaster which took the lives of 12 miners. At issue was Dye’s notion of “proven technologies and techniques.” Both senators produced compelling evidence that tracking devices used in Australian mines saved lives.

After 72 Canadian potash miners were saved Jan. 31 as a result of underground safe rooms packed with oxygen, food and medical supplies, many question if MSHA is just going through the motions.

Distrust of the coal companies and MSHA runs high in Boone County, W.Va., where two miners were killed in two separate accidents Feb. 1. Eight of the county’s top 10 employers are coal companies. After Paul Moss died at Massey Energy’s Black Castle surface mine, the company ceased production for just one shift, held a safety meeting, and resumed production just 12 hours later, miners said.

Massey Energy, the state’s largest coal operator, is nonunion.

“This has got to stop,” said Boone County commissioner Jim Gore, a 22-year veteran miner and UMWA member. “Like the governor says, enough’s enough. Let’s find out what’s going on. Not one life is worth a lump of coal.”