FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Melissa Lee burst into tears when she learned that Kentucky lawmakers had given final approval to legislation aimed at making coal mines safer places to work.
"This will save lives," said Lee, whose husband Jimmy Lee, was killed in an underground mine explosion in Harlan County last year.
State inspectors would double their visits to underground coal mines under the measure that got final approval Monday by House and Senate lawmakers and now goes to Gov. Ernie Fletcher to be signed into law.
"This is a good bill, and I appreciate the bipartisan support that went into its passage," Fletcher said. "I look forward to signing this legislation into law."
The legislation follows one of the deadliest years in recent history for coal miners in Kentucky. In all, 16 miners were killed on the job in 2006. Five of the deaths were from a single methane gas explosion in Harlan County in May.
The legislation calls for at least one member of every crew working underground to have access to methane gas detectors to monitor for the explosive gas. Miners who are working alone would also have a detector.
The bill cleared its final hurdle by passing the House on a 96-0 vote.
The measure was stalled in the House for several weeks and passed out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee only after several provisions were deleted. State Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, fought to get most of the deleted provisions restored and was able to do so after Lee and other coal mine widows came to the Capitol to offer tearful testimony of why the bill should pass.
Lee said she took up the fight to protect other miners, including her brother and uncle, who work in the same conditions that her late husband did.
"I think he would be proud of me," Lee said of her husband. "I think he would say, 'You've done good."'
Other key provisions of the legislation would require two medics to be on duty at underground mines. Ventilation fans would have to stay on at all times unless they were undergoing maintenance, and a vehicle would have to be kept near working crews to get injured miners to the surface quickly.
State Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said a bipartisan group of lawmakers hammered out a final compromise on the bill, which has support from the United Mine Workers of America union and the coal industry.
"It's not perfect, but it's a good piece of legislation," Jensen said.
Under current law, state inspectors are required to conduct a minimum of three inspections per year. The new legislation would double that number to six, two of which focus on electrical works inside mines.
Seals used to block off abandoned sections of underground mines would have to be approved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Investigators believe that last year's methane explosion at Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County was caused by a faulty seal.
The measure would also add safety analysts to the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. Their focus would be on showing miners and mine operators safer methods of doing their work.
That's a measure that the Kentucky Coal Association had pushed for, said Bill Caylor, president of the industry group.
"We're seeing a pretty responsible piece of legislation coming out today," Caylor said.
The legislation is House Bill 207.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved