Whitesburg KY

Labor secretary ‘in awe’ after tour of underground coal mine in W.Va.


U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis took her first tour of an underground mine Tuesday, flanked by business and labor leaders seeking her ear on such issues as climate-change legislation and the administration’s approach to regulating mining.

Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts and others spent about two hours with Solis some 700 feet underground touring Patriot Coal Corp.’s Federal No. 2 mine. The party traveled more than 2 miles through the sprawling operation and visited the working face, where Solis talked with miners.

While the visit centered on safety — the Labor Department includes the Mine Safety and Health Administration — it also served as an opportunity for Mollohan, Roberts, Gov. Joe Manchin, Patriot CEO Rick Whiting and rank-and-file miners to informally discuss climatechange legislation and the Obama administration’s approach to regulating the industry.

Those issues were addressed “in a polite way,” Roberts said. “Rick Whiting rode on one side of her. I rode on the other.”

After the tour, Solis had lunch with UMW, government and mine officials.

Solis was told about the high wages — Appalachian coal miners average more than $60,000 a year — and economic impact of the mine, which has about 500 employees and produced more than 3 million tons of coal last year.

“These jobs here are middle class jobs,” Roberts said. “These people make really good wages, really good benefits.”

Solis said coal, which is used to generate about half the country’s electricity, remains critical to the country, but promised more investment in technology to burn it more cleanly — and to harness wind and solar energy.

“It’s obviously a balancing act,” she said. “I think we can do that.”

Mollohan praised Solis for visiting.

“It’s very important as we begin balancing our environmental laws,” he said. “Coal is going to be part of the energy picture in this country for years to come.”

Patriot’s Federal No. 2 is well regarded by labor, industry and regulators as a well-run, safe operation. Like other West Virginia underground mines, it already has added airtight emergency shelters, caches of oxygen and other improvements required by the state after a pair of high-profile accidents killed 14 miners in January 2006.

Solis praised the operation as emblematic of what can be accomplished when labor and industry work together.

“I got to see f irst hand what kinds of resources are available,” she said. “I’m just in awe.”

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