Coal Tattoo

Gov. Tomblin signs mine safety bill — again

Gov. Tomblin signs H.B. 4351, joined by the Speaker of the House of Delegates Rick Thompson, Dalton Thompson, Del. Mike Caputo, and State Police Chaplain Jim Mitchell. Photo Courtesy of the Governor’s Office

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin already signed the state’s new mine safety bill last week, but the governor’s office had an official “signing ceremony” this afternoon anyway, in the shadow of the coal miner statute at the Capitol. A press release said the governor “publicly addressed this monumental piece of legislation”:

I’m proud of our state’s mine industry, I’m proud of our coal miners, and I’m proud we have passed this legislation. Coal mining in West Virginia will be safer as a result our foresight and hard work. Again, I’d like to commend both the members and leadership of the House of Delegates and the Senate for working to ensure the safety of our coal miners.

The press release continued:

House Bill 4351 includes many safety improvements aimed toward preventing coal mine disaster injuries and fatalities:

  • strengthens rock dusting requirements and provides new methane standards;
  • codifies an anonymous mine safety tip line;
  • requires pre-employment and random drug testing;
  • and, increases fines and penalties for those who give advance notice of an inspector’s presence at a mine or who willfully violate any safety standard that causes a fatality, among other safety improvements aimed toward preventing coal mine disaster injuries and fatalities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t attend the signing ceremony. I had another assignment at the same time as the governor’s event. Now, I’m really wishing I had gone down to the Capitol to ask a couple of questions about this “monumental piece of legislation.”

My first question would have been: Governor Tomblin, why in this legislation did you not push for lawmakers to require the same sorts of advanced safety technology — real-time ventilation monitoring and coal-dust explosibility meters — that Alpha Natural Resources agreed to install as part of its agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin regarding the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster?

I would have also asked why the governor ignored the advice of the state’s independent investigator, Davitt McAteer, and did not include in this legislation language to get West Virginia out ahead of the nation in terms of coal miner health issues, by tightening the legal limit for coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.

We’ve been through the weaknesses in this bill before (see previous posts here, here, here, here here and here, among others).  But let’s be perfectly clear again about the four items that were cited in the governor’s press release:

— The “new” rock-dust standards were already enacted by executive order nearly two years ago in West Virginia, and put into a federal regulations through an emergency rule by the Obama administration’s U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The methane-testing portions of the bill are unnecessarily complicated, appear to allow equipment moves in very dusting conditions, and are certainly not as helpful as the real-time ventilation monitoring included in the Alpha settlement.

— The anonymous mine-safety “tipline” was also already in existence.

— Abuse of alcohol and drugs may certainly be a problem in West Virginia’s coal mines, but Gov. Tomblin was off base when he tried to connect it to specific fatal accidents, and no investigation thus far as found any link to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

— The bill increases penalties, but far less than what was originally proposed. Safety fines in West Virginia are still far lower than the federal penalties, and any beefed-up criminal statutes on the state level are meaningless unless somebody actually decides to prosecute someone under those laws.

This is what West Virginia political leaders consider “monumental” mine safety legislation.