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Mining CEO on Violations: Safety is Relative

After the West Virginia mine collapse that killed 29 people, a congressman said that both government officials and companies need to take a "harder look" at the mine safety issue.

Industry officials assured Congress they take mine safety seriously.

The Wednesday hearing of the House Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee was in the works before last week's accident in West Virginia. And the committee focused mostly on the role of coal as the nation moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine came up several times, including mentions of how the safety record of the mine compares with that of the industry as a whole.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship was not among the witnesses.

"We owe it to the fallen miners and their families to take a harder look at the entire structure of mining safety," said Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, the committee chairman.

An Associated Press review of records has painted a troubling picture of procedures at the Upper Big Branch mine, and safety advocates said the mine's track record should have provoked stronger action by the mine operators and regulators. Blankenship has disputed accusations from some miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety, and has said the plant's violations are around the national average.

Markey asked the officials if the rates were typical for mines.

"We don't see the kind of level of violations that you're talking about at any of our mines," said Preston Chiaro, an executive with Rio Tinto, a mining and exploration company.

Steven F. Leer, chairman and CEO of Arch Coal, Inc., said that safety and environmental compliance are "core assets, core values" for his company. "We take it very seriously."

Gregory Boyce, president and CEO of Peabody Energy Corporation, said that the company shut down a plant in Illinois a few years ago after determining it couldn't be mined safely.

Added Michael Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association: "I can assure you that every day is mine safety awareness day to every coal operator and every coal miner that goes into the ground every day."

Still, a common industry tactic is to bombard federal regulators with appeals. After the 2006 Sago mine disaster, which killed 12, the federal government put in stiffer fines and new enforcement to punish the worst offenders. But some companies have responded with challenges that have backlogged the Mine Safety and Health Administration with claims that go unpaid and unresolved for years. Agency officials say the maneuvers block their ability to punish repeat violators.

Although Blankenship was not present, he was invoked by one lawmaker, Democratic Washington state Rep. Jay Inslee, who quoted the Massey CEO as saying that "safety regulators' intent that they think they are going to protect the safety of miners quote is as silly as global warming."

Blankenship's actual quote, however, was that politicians have no idea how to improve miners' safety, and "The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming."

"Mine safety is as silly as global warming; they are both deadly serious, and they're not silly at all," Inslee said.

Wednesday's hearing was briefly interrupted by a handful of protesters who shouted, "Coal is dirty!"

It was announced Wednesday morning that explosive levels of methane gas inside the West Virginia coal mine where 29 miners were killed are keeping investigators from going underground to look for a cause of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years, a state official said Wednesday.

The levels of methane gas, which is believed to have played on role in the explosion, need to be lower before investigators can enter, West Virginia mine safety spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said. The gas levels at the mine have been a constant problem since the explosion April 5. Rescue teams searching for four missing miners had to leave the mine several times because they of dangerous gas levels.

Restoring ventilation systems so government investigators can venture inside Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine could take up to two weeks, Jarrett said. The blast destroyed numerous concrete block air control walls, and the mine needs to be checked for potential roof collapses.

Massey is expected to drill more boreholes into the mine to help improve ventilation, Jarrett said.

The delay isn't unusual. It was 24 days before investigators went underground at West Virginia's Sago mine, where 12 miners died after an explosion in January 2006.

"First and foremost the mine needs to be safe," Jarrett said. "The methane gas problem is still there."

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