Coal Tattoo

More inaction on mine safety in West Virginia

On Friday, not long after our West Virginia House of Delegates voted 99-0 in favor of a selenium water pollution bill favored by the coal industry (with the House Judiciary Chairman citing as the main reason to support it simply that it was “an important one for the coal industry), I finished up another in a series of articles in which I’ve been checking up on how Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration is doing  in implementing last year’s “comprehensive” mine safety bill.

Here’s what that story, published in Sunday’s paper said:

The Tomblin administration is not moving forward with language in West Virginia’s new mine safety bill that could require tougher safety training at coal-mining operations that routinely violate state regulations.

Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said his agency has not yet used its authority to take action when coal operators repeatedly allow hazardous working conditions.

That’s right, here was yet another tool that West Virginia’s mine safety regulators really weren’t using — along with better methane monitoring systems, tougher coal-dust control standards, and stiffer fines for safety violations.

Keep in mind that when industry officials and political leaders talk about mine safety, one thing they like to emphasize is improving training and working with companies and with coal miners to ensure that workers know how to work safely in the dangerous environment of an underground coal mine. And with this story, we were looking specifically at a tool aimed at giving state regulators the ability to improve industry training practices at troubled mines. As the story explained:

The new “pattern of conduct” provision was added to West Virginia law as part of a mine safety bill passed in March 2012 and touted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as “comprehensive” legislation.

Under the change, the state office is now required to take action if the director determines that his inspectors have found “a pattern of conduct creating a hazardous condition at a mine.”

The law says that White’s agency must, after such a finding, notify the state Board of Miners’ Training, Education and Certification of that finding. Then, the board is required to “cause additional training to occur at the mine” to address the safety problems and hazards found at the operation.

During an interview last week, White said his agency has created a new form for inspectors to use when they want to report a “pattern of conduct” to supervising inspectors or agency headquarters in Charleston. So far, though, no such reports have been submitted.

“Has anyone filled one of those out yet? No,” White said.

And Eugene White explained why he’s really not that keen on using this new tool anyway:

White said he wants a state inspector to turn to the “pattern of conduct” provision only when “he feels like he has done all he can.”

White said that, for now, he would prefer not to report mine operators to the training board, and wants his agency and its inspectors to try to address any problems they find at mining operations.

“My whole thing is, before going to the training board, trying to get a mine back on track,” White said. “Personally, I think we fail as an agency if we run to the training board as if there’s nothing we can do.”

Gov. Tomblin likes to pretend that West Virginia is doing everything it can to make our coal mines as safe as possible — yet his administration seems to accept not aggressively pursuing every avenue given to regulators by the Legislature. And incredibly, the Legislature seems to think that’s just fine.

So far, four West Virginia coal miners have died on the job so far in 2013. That’s four times as many as had been killed as of this date in 2012.