W.Va. mine safety: ‘Everything we possibly can’?

February 25, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Last Thursday, I sat through another maddening discussion among members of the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. They were talking again about new rules to implement the tougher methane monitoring requirements of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 2012 mine safety legislation. As we explained in a Gazette print story:

Members have been unable to reach agreement on a key definition for the rules, but appear to have settled on language that would give the coal industry at least three years to comply with the new monitoring requirements.

The rules at issue are needed to implement the legislation’s mandate to tighten the state’s requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when the explosive gas methane is detected underground.

During a meeting Thursday afternoon in Charleston, board members discussed the rules again — without mentioning that they were legally mandated to finalize the rules more than four months ago.

So to board members, the issue of whether or not they complied with a legislative mandate to write these methane monitoring rules wasn’t even worth talking about.  It’s not something you heard other state leaders saying much about last week, either, despite a high-profile media event about mine safety staged by Gov. Tomblin in response to four coal-mining deaths in two weeks. It’s not as if the Tomblin administration isn’t also behind schedule to begin enforcing new coal dust control standards and imposing increased fines on mine operators for safety violations.

During a legislative hearing last week, House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a United Mine Workers leader, was content to accept that rules to implement tougher monitoring standards remain unfinished, saying:

I know that’s a work in progress and I’m OK with that.

This is what the late U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II called a “climate of lawlessness.” What’s the message to mine operators if state regulators themselves can’t or won’t comply with legislative mandates? Why should mining operators — or individual miners, for that matter — follow the law if the agencies charged with enforcing the law so blatantly ignore legal mandates themselves?

Along with those questions, there’s this idea being promoted out there by Gov. Tomblin (and being accepted by the media) that there’s nothing to do at this point, because investigations of the recent mining deaths haven’t been completed. State mine safety chief Eugene White was relaying this message in an Associated Press story that came out over the weekend:

White, however, said it’s too soon to say if he’d recommend tougher state penalties for violations because the recent incidents remain under investigation.

“Until I know for sure what the main contributing factors were that caused these accidents, I would be hesitant to make any recommendations,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out why what happened happened.”

It’s true that federal and state investigations of the recent four deaths — or even the six deaths since November that Gov. Tomblin mentioned — haven’t been completed. But it simply doesn’t follow that this means, in the governor’s words, we’ve done everything that we possibly can to make sure that our mines are as safe as possible.

What hasn’t the state done that it could do to make West Virginia’s coal mines safer?

Proximity detection devices:  As we saw from Kris Maher’s strong Wall Street Journal story,  the federal government has stalled in finalizing a rule to require life-saving equipment that could have prevented perhaps four of the recent West Virginia mining deaths. West Virginia lawmakers could get out ahead of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration on the issue. Gov. Tomblin could ask them to do so.

Training for miners:  Just a few hours before the latest in a series of West Virginia mining deaths, lawmakers  heard clearly that West Virginia’s program for training coal miners is decades out of date.  As Taylor Kuykendall reported in the State Journal:

A lot has changed since the 1970s, but it’s apparently been that long since a major overhaul of West Virginia’s state mining training procedures … A survey commissioned by the board found a desire for training on new laws and regulations, hazard recognition and identifying patterns of accidents.

“More hands on training was also suggested, using simulated mines or computer-based virtual reality,” the report states.

Many respondents also wanted to see more use of Internet-based safety program enhancements.

“Most said that their training on equipment is up-to-date, but suggested that equipment that is no longer used such as flame safety lamps and FSRs should be dropped from training curricula,” the report states.

Lawmakers and Gov. Tomblin could support the board’s proposal to earmark 1 percent of state coal severance taxes to rebuild the training program.

Inspectors:  During that same House hearing last week, lawmakers heard about the “crisis” facing the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, regarding current staffing problems and impending retirements of even more of its experienced workforce. But when I asked Gov. Tomblin about this, the governor turned to Eugene White and seemed surprised by the question:

I will discuss that with Mr. White and see what we can do.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin said he had exempted the mine safety office from budget cuts hitting other state agencies. But where is his plan to provide increased funding so the agency can keep the inspectors it has and hire more of them?

It’s easy to say that there’s nothing to be done right now, that we need to wait for the results of investigations of the recent mining deaths before taking any action. Congress and the Legislature — and Govs. Manchin and Tomblin — both used that excuse when they declined to take any mine safety actions after Upper Big Branch until the investigation was done.  But it’s simply not true to say West Virginia is doing “everything we possibly can” to keep our state’s coal miners safe.

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