Taking ‘comprehensive’ out of mine safety reform II

February 4, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin reacts to crowd support during the Democratic primary election party Saturday, May 14, 2011 in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Three weeks ago, when he was sworn in again as governor of the great state of West Virginia, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said this about the state’s efforts to ensure there’s never a repeat of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster:

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.

Of course, a law really doesn’t mean much if it’s not enforced. So what do we know so far about the state’s efforts to enforce this “comprehensive mine safety bill” the governor touted not only his in inaugural address, but also in his re-election campaign?

Well, we reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail two weeks ago about how the state has yet to write rules that are required for enforcement of the bill’s requirement to toughen the requirement for shutting down underground mining equipment when explosive methane is detected. Under the legislation, those rules were due in October.

And yesterday, we broke another story in the Sunday paper, this one reporting:

Nearly three years after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, West Virginia regulators still haven’t begun citing and fining mine operators who violate new standards aimed at preventing coal-dust explosions, according to interviews and records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.

The new standards were mandated by an executive order issued by then-Gov. Joe Manchin just nine days after the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

Lawmakers later added the standards, mandating more crushed limestone be used to control the buildup of explosive coal dust underground, to state law. Current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted the change as a major part of what he says was a “comprehensive mine safety bill.”

But despite finding hundreds of instances over the last 18 months where mining operations didn’t comply with the new standards, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has not issued even a single citation for violating the dust standards, records and interviews show.

“We haven’t been writing any paper,” said Randy Harris, a consultant who has been helping the state agency develop its coal-dust sampling program.

What wasn’t mentioned in either of those stories is that another rule — one aimed at implementing a small increase in state safety fines for mine operators established by the legislation — also has not yet been finalized. Like the rock-dusting rule, it was submitted last summer, but then abruptly withdrawn, and hasn’t surfaced since. Like the rock-dusting rule, the one for increased fines was pulled after complaints from the West Virginia Coal Association.

Interestingly, the state has managed to get an emergency rule filed to help implement part of the legislation’s requirement for mandatory drug testing for coal miners, and even did so by the legislatively mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2012.

So, just so everybody is clear: On the two issues in the legislation that actually addressed what led to 29 coal miners getting blown up on April 5, 2010 — methane and coal dust — the state still isn’t taking the actions required by this legislation. But, when it comes to the industry-backed provisions relating to drug testing of miners — a matter that had absolutely nothing to do with the worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years (see here and here) — state regulators were able to act by the required deadlines.

One Response to “Taking ‘comprehensive’ out of mine safety reform II”

  1. Kayla Brown says:

    This article is an insult and an ignorant disregard to the efforts that have been taken to ensure mine safety. To address the UBB explosion, exploit the evidence. The month prior to the explosion, the authorities cited the mine for over 50 safety infractions. The mine had been cited for 1,342 safety violations in the previous five years. It is a terrible reality, but the responsibility was not and is not in our LEGISLATORS hands, you cannot legislate morality.

    In the referenced article, Dennis O’Dell, safety director for the UMW, questions whether the drug-testing legislation is necessary, given that most of the state’s major coal producers already have such programs for their workers. Most mines would have ceased operations in lieu of being incompliant with over 50 safety regulations.

    In 1970, my grandfather, Elmer Brown, ran for UMWA Vice President when Joseph “Jock” Yablonski , UMWA presidential candidate, was shot and killed. These miners have the right to organize, and I believe that without organizing, the legislation to protect whistleblowers is most effective piece of legislation that our government has to offer our miners.

    There are and were existing mine safety regulations. Like any regulation, it could be better. Strength in regulation comes from experience and learning what positively impacts the workers and the industry, it is not simply the negative impact it will have on the incompliant operators. We, as a society, and furthermore as a workforce have the ability to organize and take responsibility of ourselves. We need to stop relying on the GOVERNMENT TO DO EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!

Leave a Reply