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Published:November 1st, 2006 04:03 EST

In Turbulent Year, West Virginia's Coalfield Death Toll Continues to Rise

By Michael Costello

With two mining fatalities in the last two weeks, West Virginia’s coalfields have seen the most on-the-job deaths since 1981.

One miner was killed in Wyoming County early Monday morning, bringing the state’s death toll up to 22 for the year 2006 according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration statistics.  

A shuttle car operator and a mechanic were repairing a shuttle car at Double Bonus Coal Company’s No. 65 Mine near Pineville.  As the two started repairing the vehicle, used to haul coal out of the underground mine to a conveyor belt, it began to move from the incline where it was parked.   

The shuttle car operator was hit and pinned against a mine wall, resulting in fatal injury, according to Caryn Gresham, spokesperson for the state mine safety agency. The mechanic was injured.

On the afternoon of October 20, a miner was crushed by several tons of coal at the Whitetail Mine in Preston County.  

State officials are tallying 23 mining deaths this year, counting a security guard found in a Kanawha County holding pond in July.

Monday’s death brings the national toll up to 43 nationwide, according to MSHA.  That number is the highest since 1995, when 47 miners suffered fatal injuries across the United States.  

In early January, 12 miners lost their lives inside the Sago Mine near Tallmansville, briefly focusing the nation’s attention on mine safety and current government oversight.  

Last week, dozens of miners from West Virginia and Pennsylvania turned out in Morgantown, calling for stronger enforcement of safety measures and for newly appointed MSHA Chief Richard Stickler to review several regulations eliminated in 2001 by the Bush Administration.

Though mine safety has been a mainstay on the legislative agenda of many state lawmakers, growing opposition to Stickler in the wake of the most recent incidents could reinforce the issue in the minds of voters with Election Day fast approaching.  

Stickler was appointed to his current post in January, shortly after the Sago disaster.  The nature of the process generated a great deal of political outcry from miners and Union officials.  President Bush granted stickler his position in a recess appointment, while Congress was on Election Day break.

Both of West Virginia’s Senators Robert C. Byrd and John D. Rockefeller IV opposed Stickler’s confirmation, as did Senator Arlen Spector, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Union spokesman Phil Smith said the appointment may sway United Mine Workers of America to vote heavily against Republicans in next week’s election.

"In doing this, he [Bush] has said what he is going to say about how important coal miners are, even in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia where his supporters are looking for votes," Smith said.