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Coal Miners Urge US Congress to Improve Safety

Forty seven American coal miners died in mine accidents last year. That death toll pales in comparison with mining fatalities in some other countries. Still, 2006 was the deadliest year for American coal miners in more than a decade. Leta Hong Fincher reports on a March 28th congressional hearing on how to improve coal mine safety.

A methane gas explosion killed Melissa Lee's husband Jimmy at a coal mine in the southern U.S. state of Kentucky last May.

"My husband was partially decapitated,” one miner’s widow says. An oxygen tank impaled his abdomen. My husband had a closed coffin. I wasn't allowed to see this face that I had [seen] for eight and a half years of my life," Lee says.

That accident also killed four other men. State investigators concluded that methane had leaked through a poorly constructed wall and was ignited by a torch.

Lee says the disaster should have been prevented. She and other advocates for miners told a recent congressional hearing that many mine operators are putting profits before safety.

Charles Howard is also a coal miner from Kentucky.

"Where I work I started putting up stuff on safety issues, the law, bills trying to be passed, stuff about this congressional hearing, but the coal operator comes in and tears it down," he says.

Last year was one of the deadliest, not just for coal miners in the United States, but for miners in other countries as well. In Russia last month, a methane gas explosion killed more than 100 miners in Siberia. It was Russia's worst mining disaster in a decade.

And China has the deadliest coal mines of all. Last year, more than 4,700 workers died in mine accidents as Chinese mine operators pushed workers to meet booming demands for fuel.

In Washington last June, the U.S. Congress passed a new law to improve mine safety. It requires mines to update emergency response plans every six months, increase the amount of oxygen available to miners and strengthen seals for abandoned sections of mines.

But some legislators say mine safety regulators are not doing their jobs.

Democratic Party congresswoman Lynn Woolsey clashed with the National Mining Association's top representative for safety, Bruce Watzman.

"You're sitting up here talking to us, representing an industry that until 2006 virtually didn't admit that this [safety] was a problem. Shame on you," the congresswoman said.

Bruce Watzman, of the National Mining Association, replied, "Recall that prior to January 2nd, 2006, the industry had just achieved its safest year on record. The state of West Virginia had just achieved its safest year on record. We are not satisfied with the record. We want to be sure that every miner returns home safely every day."

Watzman argued that since Congress passed the Miner Act, the mining industry has aggressively identified new technologies to better protect coal miners.

"Seventy eight thousand new self-contained self-rescuers have been placed into service in the mines and a 100,000 additional will be placed into service in the coming months," he said.

Watzman said his industry is also researching new communications and tracking systems to help locate miners trapped underground.