As a federal coal mine safety bill moved to the White House last week for final approval, many West Virginians say they believe mines are more dangerous than a decade ago.

In a recent poll, nearly 40 percent of registered voters in the state said they believe coal mine safety has gotten worse in the past 10 years. Only 26 percent of voters said safety at mines has improved, while 32 percent said safety levels have remained the same.

The State Journal commissioned Charleston-based RMS Strategies to conduct the poll, which is based on phone interviews with 402 registered voters during the week of May 22. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

“Basically, two out of five people say mines are becoming more dangerous now,” said Mark Blankenship, senior vice president for RMS Strategies. “As a result, government agencies that are responsible for safety, the unions, owners and others have to better inform voters as to what they are doing to improve safety because people are certainly paying attention.”

The poll’s results were released last week, just days after a sweeping mine safety reform bill — known as the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act — passed the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill was sent to the White House, where President Bush signed it into law.

“America’s miners and their families can be confident that their government is committed to taking measures that will help prevent accidents and save lives,” Bush said in a prepared statement released after the congressional vote.

The bipartisan mine safety act requires each miner to have at least two hours of breathable air and additional stores of self-rescuers every 30 minutes along escape routes, as well as at the working face of the mine. The bill also requires coal operators to submit plans detailing a mine’s use of the most current communications, tracking and breathing apparatus technologies. In addition, mine owners must continue to introduce and use the best technology that works in their mines.

The goal of the act is to ensure every mine has state-of-the-art, two-way wireless communications and electronic tracking systems in place within three years.

The bill also demands quicker incident notification, more local rescue teams, stricter fines and tougher fine enforcement.

The House of Representatives approved the bill June 7 by a vote of 381-37. The Senate unanimously approved the bill in May.

The bill was authored by Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va, and had the full support of the state’s congressional representatives — Democratic Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, as well as Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. The bill also had overwhelming support from state and national coal associations, the United Mine Workers of America, regulatory agencies and families who lost loved ones in industry accidents this year.

“This has been a dark, mournful year in our nation’s coalfields,” said Rahall, who represents the southern part of the state. “Thirty-three deaths. Thirty-three lives lost by decent hard-working men who placed their trust in mine safety system that failed them.

“This bill is not a cure-all, it’s not the perfect bill,” he later added. “But it is misleading and dangerous to suggest any bill can be a cure-all. It is a step in the right direction.”

That echoes loudly in West Virginia, where 19 of the 33 people killed in mines lived and worked. Twelve of those people died following a Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago mine in Upshur County. And the pain of that tragedy lingers throughout the state.

According to the RMS poll, 82 percent of registered voters said they have read a lot about the Sago mine disaster in the months since the explosion. Another 18 percent of registered voters said they’ve read “very little” or “some” about the disaster. Not one respondent said they were unfamiliar with the Sago mine explosion or never heard of it.

As a result of people being more familiar with tragedies such as the Sago explosion, they are more sensitive to problems within mines.

“People have heard a lot, seen a lot and read a lot about mine safety recently,” Blankenship said. “As a result, people think mines are more dangerous.”

Last year, however, was one of the safest years for mining injuries and deaths in history with 22 fatalities nationwide, including three in West Virginia. But that trend changed Jan. 2.

And government leaders have responded. In January, the state passed coal mine safety laws that served as a template for the pending federal legislation. The federal bill provides the first major overhauling of safety rules since the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act in 1977.

Mollohan said it shouldn’t have taken the deaths of dozens of workers to get new safety legislation passed. But he said he is grateful improvements are being made.

“The need for improvements in coal mine health and safety has been tragically reaffirmed by the mine disasters in my home state earlier this year,” Mollohan said. “(The mine tragedies) took the lives of our nation’s finest — our coal miners — forever changing the lives of their loved ones and shocking the state and the nation into once again revisiting the adequacies of our coal mine health and safety laws.”

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