Coal Tattoo

Davitt McAteer, who led the independent team that investigated the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster was just on Hoppy Kercheval’s Talkline statewide radio show, giving West Virginians a preview of his testimony this afternoon up at the Capitol. Lawmakers are holding the second in two days of discussions about rival mine safety bills proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the House Democratic leadership.

We learned during yesterday’s session that the problem of drug abuse in the mines — the cornerstone of the governor’s bill — had nothing to do with the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Really, anybody who has followed the issue knew that already, but the governor’s effort to get the industry bill through under the guise of his legislative response to UBB prompted lawmakers to ask the question.

On the radio this morning, Davitt McAteer reported that his team’s review of autopsies of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch revealed no drug issues — only one mine who had a small amount of cough syrup in his system.

It’s always, well, interesting, to listen in to long sessions where our state’s lawmakers ask questions. It was pretty disappointing yesterday, though, when nobody bothered to ask the witnesses the crucial question at hand: How specifically would either of these bills prevent the next mine disaster?

Maybe House leaders would have done so, if they weren’t so busy chasing down stuff related to the governor’s drug testing proposal, which while perhaps an issue worth dealing with, threatens to take attention away from any reforms that are actually based on the state’s experience at Upper Big Branch. Of course, maybe that’s exactly what the coal industry wants, as expressed in West Virginia Coal Association lobbyist Chris Hamilton’s remarks yesterday:

I would never attempt to defend what happened at UBB.  But please, don’t anyone think that is common place or happens elsewhere in the industry.

In any event, all this talk about the governor’s drug testing proposal made me want to go back and see what stance the National Mining Association took on the MSHA drug-testing proposal made in 2008 during the Bush Administration. Surprise: The industry opposed this proposed rule, at least in part because the language would have required coal operators to give miners who test positive the first time a chance to seek treatment and get their lives straightened out before they could be fired.

NMA lobbyist Bruce Watzman (pictured above) explained his organization’s thoughts during an MSHA public hearing in October 2008:

Most importantly, we believe that by denying mine operators the ability to exercise all disciplinary actions for a first offense of the operator’s program, up to and including dismissing the employee, the proposed rule will diminish rather than enhance the current level of workplace safety provided by NMA’s members.

Bruce elaborated in this NMA comment letter, calling the language the “most far-reaching regulatory provision” in the MSHA proposal:

NMA urges that consideration be given to whether the Mine Act provides authority for MSHA to displace the employment-at-will doctrine as it relates to the employer-employee relationship. More specifically, NMA does not believe that a legally sound basis has been articulated to substantiate authority for MSHA, under the Mine Act, to displace the employer-employee relationship under state law as it relates to more stringent policies for an alcohol- and drug-free workplace nor do we believe such Mine Act authority exists.

Of course, the MSHA proposal was never finalized, and it doesn’t appear to be on the Obama administration’s list of current priorities for that agency.

But remember that, just last week, a coal industry lawyer was praising the fact that Gov. Tomblin’s proposal doesn’t require mine operators to provide any sort of treatment assistance to miners who develop drug problems — apparently even if those problems can be linked to getting hooked on painkillers taken because of an on-the-job injury. Interestingly, the drug-free workplace rules for Kentucky’s coal industry appears to include at least some minimal requirement for programs to help employees with problems.