CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia led the nation in 2012 with seven coal-mining deaths, according to preliminary figures from the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration. The fatality count for 2012 was one more than the six West Virginia coal miners killed in 2011.
Nationwide, 19 coal miners were killed in on the job accidents last year, down slightly from 21 coal fatalities in 2011. The nation also recorded 17 metal and non-metal mining deaths in 2012, up from 17 the previous year, according to MSHA data.
Across all types of mining, the industry's total fatality count in 2012 was 36, down from 37 in 2011, and half of the 71 who died in 2010, when 29 coal miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Alpha Natural Resources accounted for three of West Virginia's mining deaths last year, and CONSOL Energy accounted for two. The other deaths occurred at mines owned by Coal River Mining LLC and Arch Coal.
Kentucky had the second most coal-mining deaths last year, with four. Alabama had two, and Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia had one each.
West Virginia has led the nation in coal-mining fatalities in five of the last dozen years. Kentucky led the nation six times during that period, and Utah led once, in 2007, when nine workers died in the Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster.
Just before Christmas, the Obama administration outlined new timelines for several key mine safety initiatives, as part of the publication of the government-wide semi-annual regulatory agenda on Dec. 21.
The MSHA regulatory agenda says the agency will finalize by May a proposed rule to require "proximity detection" devices that would shut down certain underground mining equipment when workers get too close, to help prevent injuries and deaths caused by collisions.
MSHA also says it will finalize by June its long-awaited rule aimed at reducing miners' exposure to coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.
A new rule on how to handle increased enforcement at mining operations that exhibit patterns of violation is due to be finalized later this month. And a second proximity device rule, to expand the requirement to other mobile underground equipment, is to be published in draft form in July, MSHA said.
The black lung rule in particular has been basically stalled since not long after it was proposed in October 2010, in part because of opposition from industry and from Republicans in Congress.
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust.
In 1969, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal with a law that required mine operators to take steps to limit exposure. The law greatly reduced black lung among the nation's coal miners.
Scientists have found, though, that black lung is on the rise again. Researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of an alarming incidence of the disease among younger miners, whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.
In West Virginia, more than 2,000 coal miners died of black lung between 1995 and 2004, second only to Pennsylvania, with 4,234 black lung deaths during the same period, according to government data. Nationwide, black lung killed more than 10,000 miners during those years.
"We hope that they can actually get those rules in place by the timelines they have laid out," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. "Coal miners have been waiting for these things for a long time."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.