Lawmakers Pledge Mine Safety Reform

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, displays a digital two-way messaging device for use in mines as he questions coal industry officials about whether miners have essential safety gear, Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.
Lawmakers pledged to step up federal oversight of the nation's coal mines on Monday and accused the agency that has that job with failing to prevent the deaths of 14 miners in West Virginia.

"Fourteen men in the span of three weeks. These deaths, I believe, were entirely preventable," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chaired the hearing on the accidents at the Sago and Aracoma mines. He expressed anger after the acting head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration left the roughly two-hour hearing halfway through.

"I can't recollect it ever happening before," Specter said of acting Assistant Secretary David Dye's decision to leave. Dye said he had urgent agency business to tend to.

"We'll find a way to take appropriate note of it," warned Specter, who heads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the mine agency, part of the Labor Department.

Specter said he would try to pass federal legislation this year that would stiffen penalties against coal operators that violate safety rules and would require that up-to-date safety equipment be placed in mines.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia Senate and House both passed legislation Monday that would require mines to use electronic devices to track trapped miners and stockpile oxygen to keep them alive until help arrives.

And while the debate on Capitol Hill wavered on whether the technology would be good enough to be worth requiring, West Virginia said it didn't want to wait for technology to be perfect; state lawmakers just want it to be better than it is now, CBS News Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi reports.

The state legislature took up the measure at the urging of Gov. Joe Manchin, who pressed lawmakers to pass the legislation by the end of the day.

"We can't afford to wait any longer," Manchin said after two miners were found dead over the weekend in a mine fire in Melville. Three weeks ago, 12 miners died after an explosion at the Sago Mine.

The laws would require mine companies to contact a new hotline within 15 minutes of an emergency, CBS' Jennifer Donelan

. And she says Manchin wants extra oxygen packs stored inside the mine as well as more miner-tracking equipment.

"These 14 miners have not died in vain," Manchin said afterward.

The sole survivor of the Sago mine explosion that killed 12 miners earlier this month has been upgraded to fair condition. Doctors in Morgantown say Randal McCloy has been showing slight neurological improvements every day. But he remains unable to speak and is still in a light coma.

Doctor Larry Roberts says the miner is reacting consistently to visitors and physicians. His physical condition is also slowly improving. Roberts says McCloy's kidneys began to function a little better over the weekend.

In Washington, Specter called for an end to a practice in which coal operators can whittle down fines they receive though an appeals process. As an example, he cited the reduction of fines — from $435,000 to $3,000 — against a coal company in charge of an Alabama mine where 13 people were killed in 2001.

He also said he thinks a fee could be imposed on coal operators — to be used for new safety equipment. "The real responsibility lies with the industry as opposed to the taxpayers generally," said the Pennsylvania Republican.

Witnesses at the hearing debated the merits of new safety equipment. One device available in about a dozen mines allows people above ground to send text messages to miners below.