Mine agency seeks $4.3 million budget hike

Mine agency seeks $4.3 million budget hike

With two recent mining deaths underscoring the dangers of the coal industry, the state’s mine safety chief asked lawmakers to increase his budget by $4.3 million for salaries, training, added staff and rescue gear.

The request Thursday by Director Ron Wooten of the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is part of Gov. Joe Manchin’s push this session for several measures spurred by mine fatalities.

Wooten told the House Finance Committee that more than half the increase would relieve the agency’s Penalty and Assessment Special Revenue Fund of covering the pay and expenses of 12 of its employees.

“That certainly is not a good practice,” Wooten said of the temporary funding arrangement.

Another $669,000 would allow the agency to hire four more inspectors and five more training instructors, Wooten said. He cited difficulties in the past year with instructing miners on self-contained self-rescuers, the emergency breathing devices each carries into the mines.

“There is a need for additional, appropriate training,” Wooten said.

Some of that funding would also allow annual staff training to increase from 50 hours to 96 hours, he said. As a result, Wooten said the state must ensure it has enough rescue teams in place so at least one remains at the ready while others undergo training. He said $500,000 would buy equipment for a fourth rescue team.

And to help the state agency compete with its federal counterpart, the budget request earmarks $191,633 for pay raises averaging 3.5 percent.

Other components of the increase include $425,000 for hiring five staffers for the state’s new Mine Emergency Operations Center. At Manchin’s request, lawmakers in 2006 created the center among several measures targeting rescue and emergency response efforts.

Manchin proposed last year’s legislation after the Sago mine explosion that Jan. 2, which left 12 miners dead, and a fire at the Aracoma mine that killed two miners later that month. Wooten said $250,000 of his request would cover costs from handling those two accidents.

Last year, 47 miners — 24 of them from West Virginia — died in the nation’s coal mines. The toll was the highest since 1995. West Virginia reported its first deaths of 2007 on Saturday, when a roof collapse killed two miners at the Brooks Run Mining Co. LLC’s mine in McDowell County.

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