Last updated: July 17. 2013 5:19PM - 203 Views
TOM MILLER



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The remarkable story of the rescue of 33 miners who survived underground for more than two months in Chile offers a sharp contrast to the coal mine safety efforts in West Virginia and several other states where tragic deaths occur all too often.
In the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that took the lives of 29 coal miners on April 5 in Raleigh County, there have been nine coal mining deaths nationwide in the first six months after that tragedy despite the efforts by federal mine safety officials to improve safety conditions underground.
Two Washington Post reporters found that despite increased efforts by federal mine safety regulators at 89 mines with past safety problems, four miners in West Virginia and four miners in Kentucky died plus one in Illinois from April 22 to July 29. The deaths came in mines where safety citations increased 31 percent after the Upper Big Branch tragedy. Five deaths involved heavy machinery. Falling rock killed the other four.
The most recent West Virginia fatality was July 29 at the Loveridge No. 22 mine in Marion County where 39-year-old miner Jessie Adkins was caught beneath a chunk of rock 16 feet long and 4 1/2 feet high that broke away from the wall. He died before he got to the hospital.
Three days earlier a federal mine safety inspector cited the mine for concerns that walls might crumble--and he indicated in that citation that it was the 87th citation for problems with the roof or walls in the last two years. Other West Virginia mine fatalities in recent months occurred April 22 at a Raleigh County mine, May 5 in Mingo County and July 1 in Greenbrier County.
The 33 Chilean miners, trapped underground because of a cave-in on Aug. 5 in the gold and copper mines where they were working, survived underground for 69 days while more than $20 million was spent drilling a two-mile shaft that ultimately brought each of them to the surface one by one. China, like the U. S., is a country with a terrible mine safety record. But that nation has reduced the number of mine deaths there from 7,000 in 2003 to about 2,600 last year while annual coal production was doubling.
So why isn't the record better in this country? When asked that question, the safety experts point to a growing backlog of appeals of earlier citations taking precedence over the newer problems. This enables the coal companies to delay payments for years.
And last week, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship insisted federal investigators who believe a buildup of coal dust underground made the April 29 Upper Big Branch Mine far worse than it should have been were wrong and that his company has a "totally clear conscience" about the incident. He blames the mine safety people for reduced coal production by Massey in recent months that resulted in reduced profits for the company.
Davitt McAteer, who directed the federal mine safety agency for President Bill Clinton, told the reporters that the coal companies don't fear the repeat citations because the consequences seem so far off. But the biggest problem is that federal regulators still aren't willing to temporarily shut down mines with recognized patterns of repeat violations.
This provision of law hasn't been used successfully in 32 years. And until it is, the number of coal mining deaths is going to continue at unacceptable levels. . .
MEANWHILE, if there were any doubts previously about the need for the West Virginia Division of Highways to consider tolls on U. S. Route 35 in Putnam and Mason County as a way to finance construction of the final 15 miles of a new four-lane expressway for this major truck route, bids opened last week should have removed them.
DOH officials unsealed four bids last Tuesday and while the precise figures from the low bidders haven't been made public yet, the initial estimates to finish the 14.6-mile stretch that will connect the section from the Ohio River at Point Pleasant to the section from I-64 west near St. Albans are in the $190 million range.
A spokesman for the Division of Highways said it will be the largest award ever made by that agency and county officials in both Mason and Putnam Counties have already given their blessing to the imposition of tolls to help pay for that construction.
Tolls even became an issue in the race for the Putnam County commission seat on the ballot in this week's general election. But with the many exits on the new, improved four-lane expressway, local residents should be able to avoid paying tolls most of the time. Interstate truckers will be forking over the lion's share of the toll revenue. . .
FINALLY, surely most West Virginians were glad to see the campaigning end for the 2010 off-year election this week since it ends the tasteless, downright sleazy political ads that seemed to almost exclusively tout the faults of an opponent rather than the platform of the candidate running the ads.
It wasn't confined to this state of course but was evident from Maine to California and was a sad time for the democracy and government we all cherish. Unfortunately a campaign strategy that focuses on the opponent's faults rather than the ideas and goals of the candidate doing the advertising seems to play well. So it may only get worse instead of better in elections to come which is truly unfortunate for candidates and voters alike. . ...


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