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Va. House Endorses Measure To Tighten Mine Safety Rules

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page B03

RICHMOND -- The House of Delegates has given preliminary approval to a bill that would establish tougher mine safety regulations, legislation prompted partly by the death of a toddler last year during a mining accident in southwest Virginia.

House Bill 2573 would amend the state's Coal Mine Safety Act and the Virginia Coal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The measure, which was passed Friday and faces a final House vote, requires mining companies to develop specific plans to better protect residents living near mining activity, and to inform residents of upcoming blasting and other activities. It also increases the maximum civil penalty for violations resulting in injury or death from $5,000 to $70,000 and gives greater authority to inspectors to investigate accidents.

Crew members work on a road expansion project near where the fatal mining accident occurred. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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The House bill is sponsored by Del. Jackie T. Stump (D-Buchanan), a southwestern Virginia lawmaker, and a companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

"We've started on a road to make sure something like this never happens again," Stump said in a floor speech supporting the bill. He said the bill balances the needs of residents, miners and companies.

"But even in doing this . . . there may have to be more changes. . . . If there are, we'll come back to make sure that we're able to mine the coal but also protect the citizens around the mines," he said.

State officials pressed lawmakers for strict safety measures after a bulldozer pushed a half-ton boulder down a cliff during a nighttime road-widening project in August, killing Jeremy Davidson, 3, as he slept in his home in Appalachia.

The accident led to protests against the mining companies in the state's far southwest corner. For many residents, the toddler's death came to symbolize the companies' and the state's disregard for their safety. In his State of the Commonwealth speech, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) called on the legislature to support tougher mining regulations.

After a state investigation, the Department of Mining, Minerals and Energy concluded that the company involved in the accident, A&G Mining Co., did not have a permit to widen the road. In its report, the department accused the company of negligence for doing the work at night above occupied dwellings and for using a novice bulldozer operator working without proper lighting.

The department fined A&G the legal maximum of $5,000 for each violation. The company is appealing the citations. Since the accident, the agency has stepped up its review of mining operations in the area, said Benny Wampler, deputy director of the state mining department.

Mining department officials and state lawmakers said industry groups, already working on a set of regulatory changes before the fatal accident, have cooperated in developing tougher standards.

"All the stakeholders have worked on this," Wampler said. "I think we have something that the state is happy with, as well as many of the companies."

State and industry officials said fatal accidents involving people who are not miners are rare.

Stump's bill would give broader powers to inspectors and increase training requirements for many miners. Mining companies would have to be more careful when surveying land and safeguarding work areas.

"You're never going to solve every concern," said W. Thomas Hudson, president of the Virginia Coal Association, which does not represent A&G Coal. "But we put some things in [the bill] that are going to be a vast improvement to what we have now."

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