Coal Tattoo

Where did Gov. Tomblin get miner drug-testing bill?

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We all know that the official federal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster didn’t find that drugs or alcohol had anything to do with the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners. And it’s clear that separate reports by independent investigator Davitt McAteer and the United Mine Workers union made no recommendations about instituting a state-run drug-testing program for miners, especially when most of the state’s major coal producers already have such programs.

So how did Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin come up with the cornerstone of his mine safety legislation, a proposal to require drug-testing of miners?

Well, to hear the governor tell it — on statewide radio no less — the proposal was among the measures the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training recommended be included in the administration’s legislative response to the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.  That sure sounded like what the governor said on Thursday, when he appeared on the MetroNews program “Talkline,” to defend his proposal following two days of legislative hearings that included harsh criticisms of it. The governor said:

My staff sat down with both labor and industry in joint meetings, when the recommendations come to us from the director of mines to propose this bill … This is not something that just came unilaterally from my office.

That just didn’t sound right to me … What I knew was that the state mine safety office back before the session had sent the governor’s office nine legislative proposals to the governor’s office. Some of those ended up in Gov. Tomblin’s bill once it was finally introduced. Others didn’t. But drug-testing language was not among those recommendations.

I asked the public relations spokeswomen for Gov. Tomblin and for the state mine safety office about this … and here’s what gubernatorial communications director Jaqueline Proctor told me in an e-mail yesterday afternoon:

OMHST did offer 9 recommendations to the Governor’s office.  A drug testing program was not included. The Governor did not intend to suggest otherwise.  It should be noted, however, that OMHST strongly believes that we need a drug testing policy.   He believes that his legislation will make our mines safer, and he looks forward to working with the Legislature in accomplishing that goal.

So who did recommend this language? Whose idea was it to turn a bill about Upper Big Branch — a disaster caused not by drugs or alcohol, but by the flagrant violation of long-standing and recognized safety practices by Massey Energy — into a piece of legislation aimed at making coal miners relieve themselves in a cup?

Good question. I’ve asked the governor’s office that, but haven’t heard back from them yet. If they respond, I’ll update this blog post.

In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that Gov. Tomblin and his staff made significant and industry-friendly changes in a committee-written Marcellus Shale bill after meeting with oil and gas lobbyists — and then refused to make public any correspondence or other documents about those discussions with the industry, saying company lobbyists had acted as “consultants” for them on the issue