From the Charleston Gazette:

Twenty-four West Virginia coal miners died on the job in 2006, the most in any single year for a quarter-century, according to state records.

Nationwide, 47 coal miners were killed, the largest annual death toll since 1995, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

As families and mine safety advocates marked Tuesday’s anniversary of the Sago Mine disaster, federal and state officials promised more reforms to reverse last year’s deadly results.

In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin has promised more steps to build on legislation passed after Sago and the deaths of two miners in a fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

“It’s been a horrible, horrific year,” Manchin said in an interview two weeks ago. “No one should go through this if we can prevent it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Manchin’s legislative agenda for 2007 will be announced in a week, during the governor’s annual State of the State address on Jan. 10. That same day, the administration will unveil its proposals for next year’s budget, including any enhancements for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

In Washington, congressional Democrats are promising more hearings on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s performance now that their party is in the majority.

“In the new Congress, we will conduct thorough oversight on the state of worker safety in America’s coal and noncoal mines,” said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who will chair the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said that passage last year of the MINER Act “is just one marker on the long route to undoing years of neglectful and industry-slanted policies at MSHA.”

In a prepared statement, Rahall also called on MSHA to take tougher steps to protect coal miners from lightning-induced explosions underground.

“Lightning has been fingered as the chief suspect in the Sago disaster, yet we still lack so many answers about how it entered the mine,” Rahall said. “As long as that question remains unresolved, the lessons of Sago are incomplete. MSHA has an obligation to continue to assess the threat of lightning to underground mines and to issue guidance to prevent future lightning-induced tragedies.”

Twelve miners died in the Sago disaster, and two weeks later two more West Virginia miners died in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Mine.

Overall, the 24 miners who died in West Virginia in 2006 was the most in any year since 1981, when 28 miners died, according to the state’s count.

Twenty-one of those deaths occurred in underground mines, one at a surface mine and two at aboveground mine-related facilities.

Of the underground deaths, three were in falls of mine roofs or walls and three involved coal-haulage equipment.

West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths, followed by Kentucky, where 16 miners died. Five of the Kentucky deaths came in the May 20 explosion at the Darby Mine. Alabama reported two coal deaths. Arizona, Maryland, Montana, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia each reported one.

MSHA has so far declined to include one of West Virginia’s deaths — the drowning of a security guard in a mine pond — in its nationwide count.

Across the country, deaths in noncoal mines were actually down in 2006. MSHA counted 25 such deaths, down from 35 in 2005.

The total deaths in all mining sectors — 72 — was the highest since 2001, when 72 also died, according to MSHA.