Taking the ‘comprehensive’ out of mine safety reform

January 21, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tombin, a Democrat, laughs as he delivers his inauguration speech on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va. This is Tomblin’s second term in office. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

We’ve written before on this blog about how Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s commitment to the safety and health of West Virginia’s coal miners eroded — at least if judged by the words he used to describe his own legislation. Gov. Tomblin went from a pledge to “do all we can” to protect miners to a campaign ad that proclaimed his legislation “tough, but fair,” whatever that means.

On Sunday, we published a Sunday Gazette-Mail article that detailed the sort of thing that happens all too often in government: Promises of politicians turn into weakened legislation, which then turns into even further weakened — or in this case non-existent — implementing rules. As we reported:

Last week in his inaugural address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted his administration’s efforts to ensure the safety and health of West Virginia’s coal miners.

“We made our mines safer by passing a comprehensive mine safety bill to protect the thousands of miners across this state who work each and every day so we may all enjoy a better life,” the governor said after being sworn in for a new term.

Today, though — more than 10 months after that bill was passed — a key provision isn’t being enforced, officials confirmed last week. And it’s not likely to be enforced any time soon, they said.

Tomblin and legislative leaders repeatedly touted language aimed at tightening the state’s requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when methane is detected underground.

State regulators, though, have never written rules to implement that part of the legislation. Without those rules, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is prohibited from enforcing the tighter methane-shutoff requirements.

One of the things that I didn’t get into very much in the print story is the question of whether lawmakers and the governor’s office knew at the time they wrote this bill that it would require entirely new methane monitors — with room for three-digit readouts, instead of two —  the design and certification of which would take years. Of course, because lawmakers and Gov. Tomblin’s staff negotiated key parts of the bill in secret with industry and labor lobbyists, we don’t really know what was said about this. This is the sort of problem that comes from statehouse reporters not working harder to push these kinds of talks out into the open, or at least making a stink about the secrecy in their daily coverage from the Capitol.

The other thing that was striking about this story was the almost complete refusal of the administration and the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to answer questions about this issue. I started asking questions about this on Jan. 9, with a quick e-mail to Leslie Fitzwater, the Commerce Department communications officer who handles queries for the mine safety office. She never did get back to me, likely because no one at the office or the Commerce Department or the governor’s office wanted to talk about it.

Eugene White, the new mine safety director for Gov. Tomblin, didn’t return any emails or phone messages. Joel Watts, administrator of the mine safety board, declined to comment. Finally, as I was about to file the story last Friday, Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Goodwin sent this very brief statement:

These rules are critical to the safety of all miners and their families. I urge the board to quickly reconvene and make this a priority.

You read the story … does it look like these rules are anybody’s priority, even after the administration was caught asleep at the wheel?

3 Responses to “Taking the ‘comprehensive’ out of mine safety reform”

  1. coal miner says:

    Please explain the statement that an all new methane monitor would have to be designed with 3 read out. are they going to read it hundreds instead of .10 and whole percent? I am not dumb just don’t understand what you are saying.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    coal miner,

    Take a look at the photo of the methane monitor above … it has two digits — it can read 1.0 percent methane. But it can’t display 1.25 percent — there is no place for a third digit.

    I hope that makes sense.


  3. BOUTTIME says:

    As an experienced miner I can tell you that a methane monitor that reads to one decimal place or 1.0 % methane concentration is more than accurate enough to protect miners ” if it is maintained & used properly “. There is absolutely NO NEED for methane concentrations to be monitored to a one hundredth of a percent or 1.00 % level. WISE men would take that 2 decimal place language out of the legislation & get on with passing it into law to protect people.

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