W.Va. attorney says system failures 'serious'

January 05, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - When J. Davitt McAteer analyzes what went wrong in this week's deadly coal mine disaster in Tallmansville, W.Va., he goes to a familiar area: federal and state mine safety laws.

It's an area the Shepherdstown attorney knows well.

After 78 men were killed in a coal mine disaster near his home in Farmington, W.Va., in 1968, McAteer teamed with consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader to write a mine safety report.

McAteer said the Farmington disaster hit him hard because many of the dead were fathers and friends of families he knew.


With Nader's support, McAteer wrote a painstaking report examining the safety of coal mining in the state.

At the time, the 750-page book, "Coal Mining Health and Safety in West Virginia," led to the most sweeping coal mine health laws in U.S. history, McAteer said.

Reached by telephone Wednesday afternoon in Washington, D.C., McAteer, who served as assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration for seven years during the Clinton administration, said federal and state laws are designed to prevent explosions like the one in Tallmansville.

First, the laws control possible sources of ignition in a mine, he said. Those include machinery that could be a source of ignition.

Second, the laws forbid use of matches in the mines and use of combustibles, McAteer said.

Also, ventilation is used in mines to remove methane gas.

In other words, if an explosion occurs, something went wrong in the system, McAteer said.

"What you have to say is, 'If the accident occurred, several systems failed.' We're talking serious stuff," McAteer said.

Officials with the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration have declined to speculate on the explosion's cause.

Gov. Joe Manchin's office said lightning might have touched off the blast, though that possibility has yet to be explained.

McAteer said there have been instances where lightning has struck metal objects at mine sites and the charge has traveled through the metal into the ground.

"It's not a real common phenomenon," McAteer said.

But there should be no explosion if the mine contains no methane, McAteer said.

McAteer has worked for years on occupational safety.

In the early 1990s, he headed the Occupational Health and Safety Law Center in Shepherdstown, an agency that worked as a clearinghouse for occupational safety research.

McAteer has a law practice in Shepherdstown and is vice president of Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit University.

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