Lawmaker wants longer jail time for self-rescuer thieves
September 26, 2007
Alarmed by the rash of self-rescuer thefts in West Virginia’s mines, and shuddering at what thieves could have in mind besides peddling them at cheap prices — perhaps even to terrorists — a southern lawmaker says it’s time to prescribe longer prison stretches for those caught and convicted.
When lawmakers return in January to open the 2008 session, Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, is ready to offer a bill seeking enhanced felony penalties for such persons.
“I got so mad at this one incident in Logan County,” Mahan said Wednesday in a telephone interview from her Green Sulphur Springs home.
Mahan spoke of an attempt this month to make off with eight emergency air packs used to keep coal miners alive when they’re trapped underground. A suspect sought by police is said to have started a multi-ton vehicle, taped the controls and sent it some 3,000 feet rolling down the tracks where it smashed into a second vehicle.
Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said it appeared to a matter of attempting to destroy property and hurt someone at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, owned by Massey Energy.
“Obviously, this has been going on, especially since we stepped up the process of getting breathing units into the mines. This is just crazy. It’s beyond comprehension.”
Right now, the act of stealing something worth at least $1,000 can net a thief a prison sentence of one to 10 years. Mahan’s proposal would double that.
Already, she has the strong backing of House Judiciary Chair Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha. Mahan has been a longtime member of the judiciary panel.
“She’s excited about it,” Mahan said. “She’s been thinking about this herself.”
Selling stolen self-rescuers on the black market is one goal thieves possibly have in mind, Mahan said, but there are others as well.
“I imagine all sorts of horrible bad uses they would be used for,” she said.
“Do they provide cover for certain types of criminals to be used in the commission of another crime? Something involved in gas or chemical agents? Or in an act of terrorism? The possibilities are limitless as far as the inventiveness as these crooks are going out to steal somebody else’s life-saving property.”
Mahan isn’t sure just how many such thefts have occurred to date, “but I’m hearing little stories from around the state.”
Since lawmakers have insisted the industry put safety above anything else, Mahan pointed out that leaders have said it has been difficult to acquire the number of self-rescuers updated law mandates. New safety requirements followed the 2006 explosion that killed a dozen miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, where the lack of oxygen devices was a factor.
“These criminals are not just stealing equipment,” Mahan said. “They are stealing the hope of miners and their families that, in the face of disaster, there can be survival.”