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Emerging from the darkness of the first underground mine he had ever been in, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel was enthusiastic about what he had seen and the future possibilities of coal as an energy source.

Hodel paid a whirlwind visit Friday afternoon to the Cyprus Plateau Mining Company Coal Mine, located high in the mountains about 20 miles southwest of Price.Kenneth J. Barr, president and chief executive officer, and several other executives of Cyprus Minerals Company, Englewood, Colo., came to Wattis to meet with Hodel.

"I was tremendously impressed with the size of the operation, with the miles we traveled underground to reach where the miners were working and the productivity of the longwall" mining system, he said.

"The Department of the Interior is charged with enforcement of mining regulations and with mine reclamation, and there is no substitute for seeing the actual operation," he said. "Now I know and am better able to visualize what they are talking about."

Before going underground, he was given a brief explanation of how the longwall operates by George Trevorrow, vice president and general manager of Cyprus Plateau Mine. The longwall consists of hydraulic supports and a huge shear, which moves back and forth across the face of the mine, cutting coal. As the coal is cut and loaded, the longwall is moved forward and the mine is allowed to collapse in back of it.

He also viewed a training film and was given an explanation of how self-rescuer equipment works and was also issued coveralls, hard-toed safety boots and other safety equipment.

In answer to a question about the two-entry system, which the Cyprus Plateau Mine has, Hodel said he had seen the benefits of the two-entry system but people who are technically trained would have the responsibility of making the final decision about the number of entries required.

After the Wilburg Mine disaster, many miners said the longwall requires a three-entry system to ensure the safety of miners and to provide safe escape routes.

Concerning the future of coal, Hodel mentioned he previously served as secretary of energy. "We need a balanced and mixed energy source program under which we make effective use of all our resources," he said. "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal. We need to find the ways, the training and technology to use coal more effectively."

Hodel said there is a proposal to reduce the federal royalty on coal from 8 to 5 percent to make U.S. coal more competitive. He said he could make no comment on it other than to explain the process and to say a decision will be made.

"We have taken statements from about everybody in the world that wanted to make a statement," he said. "At one time I was No. 2 man at the Bonneville Power Project and I took my 10-year-old son to see the control room. He said, `Gee Dad, why don't you get one of those neat jobs?' I feel the same way about the longwall. There must be a lot of satisfaction in operating that equipment."

In answer to a question about proposed legislation that would allow coal mines to cut the amount of ventilation they are required to maintain, he said, "Again, that is a matter for experts." He said it is possible to overdesign things, but safety must be maintained.