What's Being Done to Prevent Mine Deaths?

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It is a dark, dank and dangerous job -- and this weekend coal mining has claimed more lives.

Five Kentucky miners are dead in an explosion more than a half mile below the earth in the mountains of Harlan County. Only one miner made it out of Darby Mine Number 1 alive.

Already in 2006, 31 miners have died, nine more than all of last year -- in part because more coal is being mined. That means less-experienced miners working more hours, critics say.

"Here we go again," said Kenny Johnson, chaplain of the United Mine Workers of America union. "It's just one coal mine tragedy after another. And there seems to be a lot of people talking about it. But the changes they're making is just not getting to the root, the heart of the matter."

'We Need to Step Up'

There are two bills before Congress that would increase the amount of emergency oxygen miners have underground, require rescue teams are no more than an hour away from every mine in the country, and dramatically increase fines for mine companies that break the rules.

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who co-sponsored one of those bills, thinks Congress has been too slow in fixing a crisis, now four months after 12 miners died at West Virginia's Sago Mine.

"When Janet Jackson had her wardrobe [malfunction], it took Congress 40 days to change the law," Miller said. "It's now over 120 days, and Congress hasn't done a damn thing about securing a safer workplace for these miners and for these families."

Davitt McAteer, who is investigating the Sago Mine disaster, said action is needed.

"I think we need to step up," he said, "both from the standpoint of enforcement, but also from the standpoint of awareness of the miners themselves -- that actions need to be taken to prevent accidents from occurring."

Five Dead

The six men in Darby Mine Number 1 were on a maintenance crew, working overnight to prepare equipment for the day shift. Around 1 a.m. this morning, there was an explosion.

"The one survivor was found just inside the mine entrance," Gov. Ernie Fletcher said.

The five who didn't make it were found 3,000 feet underground. Four were together. The fifth was in another part of the mine.

The small mine operated by Kentucky Darby LLC employs only about 35 people. According to the administrator for coal mine safety and health with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, it has had fewer safety problems than most.

"For the last two years, this mine has been below the national average, so that would be our indicator," said the MSHA official, Ray McKinney.

There is no word on what caused the explosion. But McAteer said all mines have methane gas and coal dust, and a spark may be all it takes for an explosion.

"You'd begin the investigation looking at the kinds of equipment," McAteer said, "because remember, you have to have a source of ignition to cause either the methane or the coal dust to explode."

The United Mine Workers of America was quick to point out that Darby Mine Number 1 was a non-union mine. Rep. Miller said that could be significant.

"In non-union mines there's a great deal of intimidation that goes on against the workers, because the mine owners do not want to shut down the mines, they do not want to reduce their output," Miller said. "If you suggest that something is as dangerous to do that, you may lose your job, and it's a real problem."

ABC News' Barbara Pinto and Lenny Bourin contributed to this report.

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