Will coal lobby support weakened mine safety bill?

February 28, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

The point of closed-door negotiations between various lobby groups — aside from insulating lawmakers from any real public accountability — is to get a product that everyone will agree to … to push legislation through with everyone on board.

Supposedly, that’s what has happened with the fairly mild mine safety legislation that is expected to be approved today in the West Virginia House of Delegates. When it comes to agreed-to bills involving powerful extraction industries, this mostly means that lawmakers are trying to soften the language enough that the industry in question — whether publicly or privately — get their friends in the Legislature to kill it off. Just look at the way the Marcellus Shale bill worked out during last December’s special session (see here and here).

Of course, one problem with this is when lawmakers or the governor start off with pretty weak legislation to begin with — legislation that is focused on a problem that had nothing to do with the disaster that is being responded to, and legislation that the state’s own investigators said doesn’t really go to the heart of the matter. If you start off with something weak, you really have nowhere to go when the industry starts complaining and you need to do something to quiet them down and get their approval for how they’ll be regulated.

That’s part of what’s happened with this mine safety bill, as I tried to explain in a blog post Sunday evening and a print story that was published this morning. After looking at the legislation and how it’s evolved, West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley, a member of special investigator Davitt McAteer’s independent Upper Big Branch investigation team, told me in an e-mail message:

Twenty nine men died at UBB in the worst disaster in four decades and the Legislature won’t enact tough new mine safety requirements unless the coal industry agrees? It appears the post-mine-disaster “it will never happen again” dance is ending with coal lobbyists playing the tune and the Governor and legislature shamelessly dancing to it.

Think this bill is a strong, comprehensive piece of legislation that will keep any Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster from happening in West Virginia?

OK, then tell me what it means for a coal-mine superintendent to have “acted accordingly” after reviewing fireboss books — the safety records that are meant to be a list of hazards discovered and how those hazards are fixed before workers go underground.  Or, explain why it’s only a crime to commit a safety violation — or order a safety violation — that kills a miner, but it’s not a crime to cause a miner to be permanently maimed.

Better yet — why should someone face more serious punishment if they use the WVU logo without permission (see here and here) than if they kill a coal miners? That’s right, WVU trademark violators? Up to 10 years in jail and a $100,000 fine. Mine safety criminals? Up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

But as the House moves to pass this mine safety bill, and the action moves to the Senate, part of AP reporter Larry Messina’s dispatch on the legislation caught my eye:

Another Upper Big Branch-related provision would mandate methane gas detectors on mining machines, and require that these shut down and cut off power when nearby gas reaches a dangerous level. While supportive of the bill as amended, the West Virginia Coal Association questions the proposed gas level standard, Vice President Chris Hamilton said Monday.

“There are concerns over sections dealing with methane gas that tend to be different than the current requirements found under federal law,” Hamilton said. “There’s nothing more fundamental to our business than detecting and controlling methane gas… We want state and federal law in this area to be consistent.”

As previously explained to me, the goal of this section was to have certain methane monitors in underground mines shut off equipment if the explosive gas reached 1.5 percent of the atmosphere, as opposed t0 2.0 percent under federal law (both numbers are well below the explosive range of 5 to 15 percent).  Some sources I’ve talked to aren’t sure this is such a revolutionary change. Others have said some of the amended language is very confusing, internally contradictory, and perhaps even weaker than current law in some respects, such as allowing potentially unsafe, highly-dusty movement of continuous miners.

But I’ve also continued to hear — as Chris Hamilton explained in Larry’s story — that industry doesn’t like parts of this bill. What will they do when it moves over to the Senate? Stay tuned …

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