Mine safety: Another push for drug testing?

February 13, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

On Sunday, we published a lengthy story in the Gazette-Mail that examined the two coal-mining deaths that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is citing as evidence to support making a mandatory drug-testing requirement the centerpiece of his legislative follow-up to the worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

As we reported, the stories of those two deaths (read the official state reports here and here) are not nearly as clear-cut as Gov. Tomblin and his friends in the coal industry would have us all believe:

In one, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training didn’t mention drug or alcohol use in its formal investigative report, but later tried to strip the license of a miner who was involved after he failed a drug test. In the other, agency investigators blamed mine managers who they said had allowed the miner who was killed to work his shift after he’d been drinking.

While reporting this story last week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the major push for mandatory drug-testing of coal miners made by then-Dave Lauriski when he was head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the Bush administration. As his proposed rule stated, Lauriski geared up on this issue following a 2003 incident that killed one miner and seriously injured another at Cody Mining Company’s No. 1 Mine in Floyd County, Ky.:

Although there are limited data, anecdotal reports suggest a relationship between alcohol and drug use and mine accidents. Increased concern about the issue arose in 2003 after a blasting accident at an Eastern Kentucky coal mine (Cody Mining Co. in Floyd County) in which one miner was killed
and another seriously injured. Marijuana was found at the scene, and a witness reported having seen the miners snorting crushed painkillers. An autopsy of the dead miner confirmed the presence of painkillers. The surviving miner was not tested, and there was no federal or state requirement to do so.

But look at what MSHA’s own investigative report said caused this accident:

The fatal accident was the result of poor mining practices, inadequate or lacking mine examinations, use of a coal drill with a 12-foot drill auger, and improper blasting procedures. No sightline or directional controls were used. Hazardous conditions were not recorded and there was no indication found underground (date, time, and initials) that required examinations had been conducted. Persons were not removed from areas subject to blasting hazards. Contributing to the accident was a management system and philosophy which permitted miners to work under unsupported roof; permitted development, without correction, of excessive widths of entries and crosscuts; and caused alteration of the accident scene.

No mention of drugs in there anywhere. MSHA’s own news release said:

MSHA investigators issued 71 citations and orders to Cody Mining for violations of federal mine safety and health regulations, 62 of which were considered an “unwarrantable failure” to comply with the law.

These citations are a reflection of the appalling and egregiously unsafe manner in which this mine was operated. This was one of the most poorly managed and operated coal mines where safety is concerned that I’ve seen in more than 30 years in the field of mine safety. This company recklessly disregarded rules intended to protect workers on the job. We intend to pursue this case to the fullest extent allowable by law. This matter will be reviewed for maximum civil and criminal penalties.

And in fact, MSHA ultimately fined Cody Mining more than $500,000 in this incident. Mine operator Robert C. Ratliff Sr. was sent to jail.

In his proposed rule, Lauriski also cited this incident:

In December 2005, a 29-year-old miner (at No. 3 Mine of HandD Mining, Inc.) died after an overloaded coal hauler severed his legs. Although no discussion was included in the fatality report about whether drug use may have contributed to the accident, the hauler’s driver and the dead miner both tested positive for painkillers and marijuana.

They’re actually trying to refer there to the death of Bud Morris at H & D Mining’s Mine No. 3 in Harlan County, Ky., the day before New Year’s Eve in 2005.  Regular readers know that Bud’s picture is on the masthead of this blog, and his death was featured in the lead story or my “Beyond Sago” series back in 2006.

It’s true that the official MSHA report on that incident included this language:

Urine and blood samples were obtained from the victim at the hospital. A toxicology analysis was conducted with the results as follows: Drug content of blood – 0.020-0.100 gm/100 mg/l Oxycodone. Drug content of urine – presence of Opiates and Cannabinoid Metabolites. Additional results Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Methadone were detected by GCMS.

A urine sample was obtained from the operator of the Coal Hauler at the Appalachian Regional Hospital shortly after the accident. A toxicology analysis was conducted with the results as follows: Opiates – positive – greater than 300 ng/ml and Cannabinoid Metabolites – positive- greater than 50 ng/ml.

But again, the drug issue was not listed as a root cause. Instead, here’s what MSHA investigators concluded:

An examination of the machine revealed that visibility was limited due to the loading of the Coal Hauler. The machine was found to have ‘side-boards’ installed, which resulted in a load height of 60 inches above the mine floor, in a mining height of 67 inches. The Coal Hauler operator’s line of sight was estimated to be 45 inches above the mine floor. Further, the operator’s compartment of the Coal Hauler was located on the right side behind the loaded deck, which was the opposite side of the machine from the victim’s location.

The accident occurred because the available equipment and procedures for operating the coal haulage system did not ensure that mobile equipment operators had clear visibility at the section loading point. The Coal Hauler operator was not aware of the shuttle car operator’s location at the feeder because his visibility was impeded by coal loaded above the sideboards of the Coal Hauler. Also, the Coal Hauler was not compatible with other equipment.

Complications to the victim’s recovery occurred because proper first-aid was not given to the victim. The mine operator did not ensure that the section foreman, as the select supervisor, was properly trained to perform first-aid.

Now, I don’t know of anybody who is actually arguing that it’s a good idea for coal miners to be drunk or under the influence of drugs while they’re working. And most safety advocates see no problem with developing a mandatory program for drug testing. Most even acknowledge the ugly truth that there is a serious drug abuse problem in the Appalachian coalfields. But most also think that the solution to this isn’t just a bunch of drug testing programs for everything from coal miners to welfare recipients — without coinciding programs that will help our residents get the treatment they need to get clean and live productive lives. Gov. Tomblin’s legislation includes no such programs — and his broader legislative agenda on drug abuse rejects the advice of his own expert panel, which advocated increasing taxes on tobacco and alcohol to fund more treatment.

As for coal mining, we still haven’t heard Gov. Tomblin or legislative leaders offer any reason at all for why their post-UBB reform plans don’t include making every coal operator in the state step up and institute the sorts of safety improvements that Alpha Natural Resources has agreed to as part of its deal to avoid any corporate criminal prosecutions related to the mine disaster.

And not for nothing, but here’s something else about that Cody Mining case that prompted Dave Lauriski to send MSHA down the road of trying to mandate drug testing for all coal miners. In his Oct. 22, 2003, news release about the MSHA report on that incident, Lauriski said this:

While the Mine Act specifically states that the mine operator has the responsibility to operate a mine in a safe manner, I am particularly disturbed and deeply disappointed that there were unexcused deficiencies in the performance of MSHA personnel assigned to oversee and inspect this mine. MSHA inspectors hold high professional standards for themselves and perform their jobs responsibly. However, as in any large organization, there are instances where individual performance may not live up to the high expectations set for them. Unfortunately, that was the case here. We have taken action with regard to these deficiencies.

Action with regard to these deficiencies?

By the time that release was issued, Lauriski was already well on his way to blocking new safety regulations and slashing MSHA’s budget and staff — setting the stage for the agency’s well-documented failures that played a role in disasters at Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch


One Response to “Mine safety: Another push for drug testing?”

  1. Donna Price says:

    I think there are valid reasons to require drug testing for employees in any hazardous occupations, including mining; however, it should be understood the cost for the drug testing should in no way be passed on to WV taxpayers, but should be the coal operators’ responsibility. To presume that the state must pay the cost of drug testing required for safety/health reasons is not a valid argument. If it were, the state would be paying the costs of workman’s compensation insurance, which is also a state requirement.

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