Coal Tattoo

Are coal-mining deaths part of our ‘way of life’?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and mine safety chief Eugene White answer questions from reporters during a press conference this morning at the Capitol.

We’ve got today’s big coal industry news on the Gazette’s website:

Citing a string of recent mining deaths, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today ordered all West Virginia coal operators to briefly halt production to review safety laws and best practices.

“This is not a shutdown of mining operations,” Tomblin emphasized during an early afternoon press conference at the Capitol. “We are working statewide with mining industry officials to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions.”

The governor announced the “safety stand down” following the Tuesday night death of a Raleigh County miner who was run over by an underground mining “scoop” vehicle.

It was the fourth coal-mining death in the last two weeks in West Virginia.

You can read the governor’s prepared statement here and I’ve posted a copy of his executive order here. You can watch the entire press conference online here via WBOY-TV.

There was a lot of hang-wringing at today’s press conference, as administration officials, state regulators and lobbyists for both the coal industry and coal miners contorted themselves to avoid saying anything too negative in the wake of four coal-mining deaths in just 14 days.

For example, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told me that the frustrating thing to him is that no one seems to know why the recent deaths occurred:

I understand there just aren’t any explanations for these, as they do the preliminary investigations … We strive every day to not have any accidents and its disheartening any time you have one, especially a fatality.

It reminded me a bit of what House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a United Mine Workers of America representative, said way back in 2006, when then-Gov. Manchin issued a similar “safety stand down” order following a string of deaths that started at Sago and ended with two separate fatalities a month later on Feb. 1:

We’ve got to get a grip on what’s going on in the coal mines here. Something is going wrong and we have to find out why. Miners should not be dying. I know we can make these mines safe so our miners can come home to their families every night.

Today, Delegate Caputo praised Gov. Tomblin’s actions thus far, but also had this to say:

We’ve lost too many miners in this state. This has got to stop.

Listening to the governor’s statement, and mine safety chief Eugene White’s explanation of his agency’s plans to take part in safety talks at the state’s mines, I couldn’t help but think I’d been here too many times before. And I was reminded of Gov. Tomblin’s statement back in December, when two fatal accidents occurred on the same day in West Virginia (and two other workers narrowly escaped serious injury or deatha):

Today, four families were shaken by the unexpected but always present danger associated with mining. While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur.

So when the governor took questions, I read that statement back to him and asked him if he thought the deaths of coal miners are just part of our way of life here in West Virginia. This is what he said:

Well, I think we all recognize that working especially underground, working in close quarters, you’ve got to depend on each other. You’ve got to be at the top of your game at all times. It’s one of those things that we’ve watched over the years and we’ve done everything that we possibly can to make sure that our mines are as safe as possible. That’s the reason that the inspectors are out on a regular basis making sure the mines are in compliance with all of the safety laws.

The problem, of course, is that our state hasn’t done all that we possibly can to make sure our mines are as safe as possible, as our recent Gazette stories showed pretty clearly (see here, here, here and here).

It’s also worth noting that two of the coal-mining deaths in West Virginia this year (see here and here) involved miners being hit by or run over by mobile underground equipment — the sorts of deaths that could be prevented if Gov. Tomblin and the Legislature had included a requirement for proximity detection devices in last year’s mine safety legislation.

Also, remember that the “safety standown” ordered by Gov. Tomblin involves the state’s inspectors going out to help mine operators give safety talks to miners before each shift tonight and tomorrow, but doesn’t call for any immediate inspections or beefed up enforcement, or anything of the kind.

It’s interesting to read what the governor said in the prepared news release issued by this office this afternoon:

West Virginia’s coal mining industry can thrive only if mining operations are conducted as safely as possible and in accordance with the mandatory health and safety laws and regulations aimed at preventing accidents. I’m asking all coal companies and their employees to take this safety check seriously- we need to do everything we can to ensure all of our coal miners are safe.

But then, speaking to reporters during his press conference, the governor put it just a little bit differently:

This is not a shutdown of mining operations. We are working statewide with mining industry officials to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions.

You have to wonder why it’s so hard sometimes for West Virginia political leaders to say something like this, which was the statement issued a few minutes ago by MSHA chief Joe Main about the six deaths in the nation’s mines in the last four weeks:

The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.

Then again, if you read Joe Main’s statement closely, he’s not calling for additional inspection and enforcement measures yet, either …