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West Virginia passes mine-safety bill

Lone Sago survivor upgraded; senator criticizes federal agency

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West Virginia
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CHARLESTON, West Virginia (CNN) -- Following the deaths of 14 West Virginia miners in less than three weeks, state lawmakers on Monday approved legislation aimed at improving the chances of survival for miners trapped underground.

The measure proposed by Gov. Joe Manchin would require miners to wear wireless devices so they can be found more quickly.

"The safest mines in the world will start right here in West Virginia. That's my commitment -- today was the start," Manchin said.

It also requires the state to establish a 24-hour emergency hot line for mine operators to call when an accident happens in an effort to speed up and better coordinate the emergency response. If a call to the number isn't made within 15 minutes of an accident, the mine operator could be hit with a $100,000 fine.

In addition, the bill says all mines should be equipped with extra oxygen supply tanks at various approved points underground to give miners a better chance of surviving emergencies.

Also Monday, at the first congressional hearing on mine safety since the two incidents, Sen. Robert Byrd said the 14 deaths "were entirely preventable."

"We owe the families of these deceased men a hard look at what happened and why," the West Virginia Democrat said at the hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. (Watch experts testify on what might have saved miners -- 2:09)

"We must determine what is wrong at [Mine Safety and Health Administration] and contemplate how to make sure the leadership of that agency does its job," Byrd said, according to a written account on his Web site.

West Virginia's Senate passed the proposed state legislation 32-0 Monday; the House of Delegates approved it 93-0 later in the day.

Twelve miners died earlier this month of carbon monoxide poisoning after an explosion at the Sago Mine left them trapped. It took rescuers more than 41 hours to reach them.

One miner, Randal McCloy, survived the Sago disaster. He was initially on life support in critical condition after severe carbon monoxide poisoning, but his condition on Monday was upgraded to fair.

"He continues to show slight neurological improvements each day," his physician, Dr. Larry Roberts, said, according to a hospital news release. "He has been reacting to visitors and physicians who speak with him, but remains unable to speak.

"His physical condition is also slowly improving, and he regained additional kidney functioning over the weekend."

In a separate accident, the bodies of two miners were found on Saturday, two days after a fire at Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Melville.

Manchin, whose uncle was killed in a mine accident in 1968, told CNN he wants miners to know that the state is doing everything it can to improve safety.

"We've had pretty good safety records all along. But if you sit with a family, one accident, one loss, is one too many," he said Monday.

Here are some highlights of the West Virginia legislation:

Emergency hot line

The legislature is to designate an emergency telephone number for mining or industrial personnel to call to initiate a "rapid emergency response to any mine or industrial accident."

This 24-hour hot line would better connect the state Department of Homeland Security; the director of the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training; emergency management and local and regional authorities.

More oxygen

A mine operator is to provide caches of additional "self-rescue devices," or oxygen equipment, inside the mine.

Strobe lights will be placed on the storage container housing the devices and will begin flashing in the event of an accident.

Each container is to be marked with a luminescent sign with the words "self-rescue" or "self-rescuers" on it. In addition, 25-foot-long reflective lifeline cords will extend from both sides of the containers to help guide miners to them.

Currently, each miner carries a similar device. Each device has oxygen for up to an hour.

Communication devices

Each miner is to carry a wireless communication device and a wireless tracker. This way they can directly notify the surface when an accident happens, and rescuers can get a better idea of where miners are located.

A mine operator is not allowed to use the tracking device against workers in non-emergency situations.

A miner convicted of stealing the communication device or the tracker would face a minimum of one year in jail, and possibly up to 10 years. They would also face a minimum $10,000 fine.

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