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Mine deaths spur call for 'stand-down'

West Virginia governor asks for emergency review after two die

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Gov. Joe Manchin: The state will put "the safety of every one of our miners ... above all else."

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(CNN) -- West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin called for the state's mines to halt operations for safety reviews Wednesday after two miners died in accidents earlier in the day.

"I am calling on the industry to cease production activities immediately and go into a mine safety stand-down," Manchin said.

"We're going to correct any unsafe conditions before we mine another lump of coal," the governor told reporters. "There's not going to be another miner going in a mine until this is done." (Watch as the governor announces the emergency plan -- 2:42)

Wednesday's deaths -- in Boone County -- bring the number of mine workers who have died in accidents in West Virginia this year to 16.

There were three mine fatalities in all of 2005, said Matt Turner, spokesman for the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.

"Our hearts and prayers, and the hearts and prayers of every West Virginian, go out to the families of the two men that were lost today," Manchin said.

Separate incidents Wednesday in Boone County also left two other miners injured, Turner said. The county is the state's top coal producer.

The governor's call to suspend production was voluntary, but Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said Wednesday night that "We have had no company so far tell us that they aren't going to do so."

Inspections by state and federal teams will start immediately, she said. Normally, each mine is inspected quarterly.

"Our goal is to do it as quickly as possible," Ramsburg said.

She said 350 underground and 200 surface mines have current permits to operate in West Virginia.

Wednesday night, David Dye, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, asked coal mines nationwide to conduct an hourlong "timeout" Monday, in the wake of recent accidents.

Dye said the agency is sending additional mine-safety inspectors to West Virginia to respond to the unusually high number of mine fatalities there this year.

"I am asking miners and management at every mine operation to do the right thing: Take one hour out for safety's sake this Monday," Dye said in a written statement. "Be proactive in preventing future accidents and saving lives."

"Our hearts grieve for the families of the miners who have lost their lives," he said. "We will provide all the help we can, and we'll conduct a thorough investigation of each accident."

Bulldozer sparks blaze

Wednesday's first death, reported about 2:30 p.m., occurred when a bulldozer operator struck a gas pipeline, which burst into flames. That happened south of Charleston at the Elk Run Coal Co.'s Black Castle strip mine in Drawdy, said Dirk Fillpot of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

It was unclear whether the bulldozer operator was a contract worker or an employee of Elk Run, a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co.

Jeff Gillenwater, a Massey spokesman, said the gas line was close to the surface and the gas was turned off. He said the fire is being investigated.

The second death was reported in the early afternoon at the No. 18 Long Branch Energy underground coal mine, Fillpot said. Authorities said the miner was killed when a wall support collapsed underground.

There were two previous deadly incidents this year at West Virginia underground mines, including one owned by Massey.

On January 2, an explosion at the Sago Mine killed 12 miners, leaving one survivor who is undergoing rehabilitation after spending nearly two days underground surrounded by carbon monoxide fumes. The Sago Mine is owned by International Coal Group.

A fire erupted January 19 inside Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma Mine No. 1, killing two miners who were separated from the rest of their crew during the escape effort. That incident was in Melville. Aracoma is a division of Massey.

"While the last month has been more trying for our state than anyone could have ever imagined, West Virginia remains committed to putting the safety of every one of our miners first and foremost," the governor said.

He said his office was also filing emergency rules Wednesday night that "are the next step in implementing the mine safety legislation that was passed by the legislature last week." (Full story)

Industry support

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his group supported Manchin's request for suspended production.

"It will be a time for the work force to revisit everything that they're doing," along with management, Raney said.

The coal association says it represents more than 90 percent of the state's underground and surface coal mine production. West Virginia, the second largest U.S. producer of coal, produced 153.6 million tons of coal at 544 mines in 2005, according to the association.

The International Coal Group said in a written statement it "remains committed to the safety of its employees and operations," and vowed to work with all governmental agencies in furthering those goals.

Beginning with the morning shift Thursday, the company said its mines and shipping facilities in West Virginia and three other states "will begin each shift with an in-depth safety review."

CNN's Ronni Berke contributed to this report.

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