Mine safety: Are lawmakers doing all they could?

February 6, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Today and tomorrow, the House and Senate Judiciary committees at the West Virginia Legislature are holding informational sessions to discuss the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and to hear about at least two pending pieces of mine safety legislation.

We’ve talked before about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s bill (see here and here), and you can read that legislation for yourself here (It’s SB 448, the same as HB 4351)  The House leadership’s bill was discussed here and the full text is available here.

Probably the most fascinating thing about all of this is how Gov. Tomblin — perhaps with the help of some coal industry lobbyists — managed to turn legislation that was prompted as a response to the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years into a drug-testing bill for the mining industry.

As best I’ve been able to tell from reading the reports out so far, there’s absolutely no evidence — none at all — that drug use had anything at all to do with the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Yet a drug-testing mandate is the cornerstone of the governor’s bill. And somehow the legislation doesn’t include a requirement that mine operators provide drug treatment for miners with problems, even if those problems developed while a miner was taking prescription medication as part of recovering from a workplace injury.

Over at the State Journal, Taylor Kuykendall did a piece that compared the governor’s bill and the House leadership proposal.

But what about what isn’t in either of the bills?

— There’s really no legitimate question that the Upper Big Branch explosion on April 5, 2010, was the almost inevitable result of a a huge buildup of highly explosive coal dust in the Massey Energy mine. Yet neither piece of legislation does much about this problem. Gov. Tomblin’s bill purports to do so, by really all it’s doing is repeating a tighter rock-dusting standard that’s already been adopted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

If lawmakers wanted to take the lead in this area, they could mandate that every underground coal mine in West Virginia do what U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has forced Alpha Natural Resources to do: Install new meters that would allow better monitoring and detection of coal-dust problems and violations.

— Independent investigator Davitt McAteer’s team found that most of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch already were suffering from black lung, a deadly disease that claimed the lives of 10,000 U.S. coal miners in the last decade. While black lung wasn’t a contributing factor in the disaster, the McAteer teams’ findings were a clear indication of the continuing public health disaster from this disease.

Public health experts know how to end black lung — tighten the legal limit of coal dust in the nation’s underground mines. But the industry has succeeded in getting its friends on Congress to block the Obama administration’s effort in that direction. So if Gov. Tomblin really believes that one coal-mining death is too many, he could urge lawmakers to amend his bill to implement the tighter standard in all of West Virginia’s underground coal mines.

Those are just two examples, drawn from a very quick review of reports issued by McAteer, MSHA and the United Mine Workers of America … Look for more recommendations during testimony today and tomorrow, and watch and see if the governor and legislative leaders quickly adopt the absolute strongest among those recommendations.

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