West Virginia lawmakers prepare mine safety bill

Measure could include language establishing a federal rapid response team to assist local rescue workers.

The West Virginia congressional delegation is working to introduce legislation soon to improve rescue efforts and prevent accidents at coal mines.

The effort follows deadly accidents at two West Virginia coal mines this month.

The lawmakers say the 14 deaths might have been prevented partly through quicker rescue operations, tougher enforcement of safety rules by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and better technology.

The bill will aim to deploy better communication and location technology, as well as equipment that provides oxygen to miners for longer periods of time.

"If we had the right technology applied in an expeditious way, it could have saved lives," said Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va. "These are things that were so glaringly wrong," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the delegation's lone Republican.

Capito also said the bill might call for increased federal fines and penalties against individual coal mines for safety and other violations, and might address "some of the enforcement regulations at the federal level to ensure MSHA has the enforcement tools."

It also might include a suggestion by West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin for a federal rapid response team to assist local rescuers.

Mollohan said the bill might authorize higher federal mine safety spending but cautioned that "remains to be seen" as the delegation wants to move on the bill "as fast as we can."

This initial bill might be followed by more sweeping legislation after Congress holds additional hearings and recommendations from a joint-state investigation are released.

"You can't stand still," she said. "If it means bucking up against the administration, that's what I'm going to do."

MSHA and the state are conducting a joint investigation into accident at the International Mining Group's Sago mine. A timeline for the release of recommendations resulting from that investigation is uncertain.

The Bush administration and congressional Republicans were criticized at a hearing Monday of the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee for underfunding MSHA.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has scheduled a hearing on mine safety March 2.

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