Coal Tattoo

W.Va. lawmakers introduce mine safety bill

Here’s the report just out from the AP’s Larry Messina:

For two West Virginia lawmakers who lost fathers in coal mining accidents, preventing disasters like the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion has taken a personal turn.

House Speaker Rick Thompson was not yet born when a roof fall killed his father at age 21. Delegate Charlene Marshall’s dad died in the mines when she was 6.

Thompson and Marshall are among 11 lawmakers who introduced legislation Monday offering numerous ways to target unsafe mines.

The bipartisan bill would identify and then remedy the enforcement problems cited in the reports by Upper Big Branch investigators. That disaster killed 29 miners.

It also seeks to allow miners’ families to take part when fatal accidents are investigated. Both Thompson and Marshall said their families were left in the dark after their fathers died.

This, of course, comes after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin talked up mine safety in his State of the State address, outlining a mixed package of measures, without actually having the legislation decided upon and ready to introduce. The Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard tweets that the governor’s bill should be introduced by Friday and that the plan is for a House Judiciary subcommittee to work on the competing proposals.

UPDATED: Ry has done a blog post on the Daily Mail’s Capitol Notebook, with this great quote from Delegate Mike Caputo, a UMWA representative, about whether mine safety legislation should be based on a consensus approach:

“I’m not saying ‘Something we can call agree on,’ I’m not saying ‘Compromise,’ I’m saying something that protects the health and safety of miners,” Caputo said. “If the industry doesn’t like it, that’s just too damn bad.”

You can read the bill for yourself here, and I’ve posted a fact sheet being distributed by the House leadership here. (note that two of the bill’s 11 co-sponsors are Republicans — one from Upshur County, where the Sago Disaster happened, and one from Raleigh County, where Upper Big Branch occurred).

Among other things, the bill would make it a crime for anyone to knowingly commit or willingly permit violations of state mine safety regulations. Current state law applies that sort of a standard to corporate mine operators and to any director, officer or agent of the corporation who knowingly authorized, ordered or carried out the violation.

The bill would also create a new crime for advance notification of mine safety inspections by the state, and would increase maximum civil penalties that the state can impose on mine operators from $3,000 to $10,000. The legislation would require the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to conduct ventilation surveys before approving ventilation plans for underground mines and also includes this tidbit, clearly written with the experience of Upper Big Branch in mind:

When an operator repeatedly submits amendments to a ventilation plan which the director rejects as being inadequate, or when the submissions exhibit a pattern of failure to use proper ventilation engineering design standards, the director shall revoke the ventilation plan, and order withdraw of the mine until proper plans are approved by the director are implemented.

Regarding future mine accident investigations, the legislation states:

If any miner is entrapped, killed or otherwise prevented, as the result of an accident, from participation in an accident investigation, the miner’s closest relative may designate a representative to attend witness interviews and hearings regarding the accident. The representative must be a licenced attorney or a representative of a labor organization representing miners.

It also requires:

The director shall, by December 31, 2013, report to the Legislature and Governor on the need for revisions in the state’s underground mine safety enforcement procedures. The director shall initiate the study using appropriate academic resources and mining safety organizations to conduct a program review of state enforcement procedures to evaluate what reforms will assure that mining operations follow state mandated safety protocols. The report shall include recommended legislation, regulations and policies, consider various options for improving inspections, accountability and equitable and timely administrative procedures that cause remediation of hazardous working conditions.

The bill would create a new Underground Mining Accident Investigative Panel to look into major mining accidents, but only one member of the five-member panel would be truly independent — the others would be the chair of the state mine safety board, a representative of NIOSH, an industry official and a UMWA nominee.