Closing the door: Why W.Va. coal mines aren’t safer

October 4, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

7.5x6.5......Widow with son...

Caitlin O’Dell and her son, Andrew, made a surprise visit to the state mine safety board meeting to lobby for a new proximity device rule.

On Thursday morning, members of the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety were settling in for a monthly meeting. They gathered in a conference room at the Days Hotel in Flatwoods. Hot coffee and pastries were provided.

Out in the hall, a baby was crying. Someone got up and closed the door, so the infant wouldn’t disturb the board as members discussed whether West Virginia’s coal mines should be required to install “proximity detection” systems that safety experts say can protect underground miners from being crushed or pinned by continuous mining machines, scoops and shuttle cars.

At these meetings, board members don’t have nameplates. They don’t go around the table and introduce themselves. But they tell audience members to state their name and who they represent.

At this particular meeting, there was a surprise guest.

“My name is Caitlin O’Dell,” the young woman told board members.  “I’m the widow in one of the fatality cases that’s on your agenda today.”

The board’s six members are seasoned coal industry officials and United Mine Workers representatives. They’ve known and met many families of miners who have died on the job. But in this context — at the meeting where they help decide what protections West Virginia will give its miners — it’s pretty unusual for board members to have to face a real live family member.

You might think such a confrontation would prompt something different out of the board, something more than the inaction that we’ve seen for many months on important issues facing board members. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. Just check out our story in the Gazette, headlined Despite widow’s plea, board rejects ‘proximity’ device rules. As we explained:

Board members expressed their sympathies to Mrs. O’Dell. They admired her 9-month-old son, and they thanked her for coming to “put a face” on the issue. Then, the board’s three industry representatives voted to block two different motions from their United Mine Workers counterparts to move forward with “proximity detection” rules.

Caitlin O’Dell sure tried. She told her story to the board. And as you probably guessed, and as we all learned later in the meeting, the baby that was crying in the hall was her son. Eventually, she brought him in so the board members could meet him, too. As we detailed in today’s story:

Before they voted on a rule to require “proximity detection” equipment in underground coal mines, Caitlin O’Dell wanted to introduce members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety to her son.

odellAndrew O’Dell never got to meet his father. He was born last Dec. 21, three weeks after Steven O’Dell was crushed to death by a maintenance “scoop” vehicle in the Alpha Natural Resources coal mine where he worked.

Caitlin O’Dell came to Flatwoods to urge mine safety board members to require all of the state’s underground coal operations to install systems that would shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers. She believes such a system would have saved her husband’s life, and could spare other families the pain hers has suffered.

“I’m here to ask you to stop history from repeating itself,” Caitlin O’Dell told board members. “You have an opportunity today to change history for the next family. It’s too late for mine.”

But none of that was enough for board members to act on a proposal that, basically, has been on the table for at least five years, since a team of top West Virginia mine inspectors recommended the state adopt a rule to require all coal mines to install proximity devices on mobile underground mining equipment.

MineBoardIndustry

Industry members of the state mine safety board include, from left to right, Charles Russell of Arch Coal, Terry Hudson of Patriot Coal, and Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Board member Chris Hamilton repeatedly tried to push through a proposal that would have done little except put off ever getting a proximity detection rule on the books, by scheduling a series of meetings around the state to hear from experts and talk to the industry about not just proximity devices, but also other less-effective options, including cameras, reflective clothing and strobe lights.

Of course, the problem with Hamilton’s proposal was that the state’s Mine Safety Technology Task Force has been discussing and investigating proximity detection for years now. The Coal Association supported that process, and during a public hearing two years ago, Hamilton himself said that process should be allowed to completed and the task force’s recommendations followed. Well, the task force last month finally issued a recommendation — though it was driven in part by negative publicity from a Gazette story detailing the state’s inaction on proximity devices — urging the mine safety board to immediate adopt a rule.

Which way does Chris want it? Should the state have the task force, and follow its supposedly expert recommendations? Or is all of that just a waste of time, with the industry able to re-litigate every issue when the task force actually gets around to urging the state to take action?

Incredibly, Chris also spent a lot of time at the meeting trying to argue that a proximity device rule would not have saved Steven O’Dell’s life.  Chris is right that Mr. O’Dell was crushed to death by a scoop, not a continuous miner. So a rule that required proximity detection only on continuous miners would not have saved him. But under the logic Chris was trying to advance, the only reasonable response then would be a rule to require proximity detection on scoops — and on all other mobile underground equipment. But you didn’t hear Chris advancing that idea or voting for it. Quite the opposite.

Making more sense on the industry side, in some ways, was Patriot Coal’s Terry Hudson. Terry is newer to the board, having only been appointed in June 2012. All of this stalling didn’t happen on his watch. And certainly, Terry was less tone-deaf to the notion that, with a widow watching their every move, the board needed to do something of substance, saying:

We all in this room do support proximity [detection systems]. We’re going to be looking at this long and hard and quickly. We need to put this on the front burner and start moving forward with it. For the record, I am not saying that we stall or delay.

At some points in yesterday’s meeting, Terry Hudson even sounded like he was going to go along with the idea of putting the task force proposal to require proximity devices on continuous mining machines only out for public comment, a step forward in the rulemaking process. Terry said he thinks proximity detection is ready to go for continuous miners, but that the technology needs more work on scoops, shuttle cars and other mobile equipment.

But in the end, Terry and the other industry representative to the board, Charles Russell of Arch Coal, stuck together with Chris Hamilton, voting for his proposal to delay the process and voting to together to block the UMWA side of the table’s motions to actually move forward with a rulemaking.

MineBoardLabor

UMWA representatives to the mine safety board include, from left to right, Ted Hapney, Gary Trout, and Carl Egnor.

But the dysfunction isn’t all the coal industry’s fault. The UMWA shares part of the blame. The union’s representatives certainly know a lot about mine safety. But they often don’t put their knowledge to work to advance better safety measures through the board’s regulatory process.

Proposal after proposal — developed in response to actual deaths of actual miners — sits on the board agenda for month after month after month.  Union members are content to engage in the same argument month after month after month, in which industry representatives pick apart specific wording of regulatory proposals — and the union’s members fail to come back with language that response to those concerns or with data and facts that counters the industry arguments.

Look at the way the board did nothing about its mandate to write methane monitor regulations to implement part of the state’s new safety legislation.  Or look no further than the proximity detection issue — where was the UMWA in pushing for some board action anytime in the last five years?

At the same time, the board’s most recent incarnation seems almost set up to fail.  In 2010, lawmakers changed the board’s makeup. Previously, six of the board members were appointed by the governor, with three recommended by industry and three by the UMWA. A seventh member, the director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training (also appointed by the governor) could vote in certain circumstances — such as rulemaking — to break a 3-3 tie. Lawmakers changed that in 2010, and now there are only six voting members. It’s pretty easy to imagine most important issues coming down to a tie between the industry and labor representatives.

So really, while the board’s inaction yesterday was almost impossible to understand, the root of the problems with mine safety in West Virginia are with lawmakers and the governor’s office.

Take the recent methane monitor issue. This was supposed to be a major part of the bill in which lawmakers responded to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. But leading mine safety advocates in the Legislature did little — if anything — to monitor whether the board was properly implementing the bill.  So far today, I haven’t heard anyone from the Legislature criticizing the board’s inaction on proximity devices, or promising to haul board members into a committee meeting to demand answers and action.

Or consider Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. We’ve written many times before here about how his “comprehensive” mine safety legislation was anything but (see here, here and here, for example). If you think it was comprehensive, then explain why it didn’t have a mandate for proximity detection systems.

In this case, remember that all of the board member’s terms are currently expired, except for Terry Hudson. Gov. Tomblin, if he was unhappy with the board’s inaction on a variety of issues, could appoint new members. Doing that, though, would be challenging both the coal association and the UMWA — two groups that endorsed the governor and whose support he views as key. But rather than be a real leader on mine safety issues, Gov. Tomblin has continually perpetuated the myth that dead coal miners are just a cost of doing business for coal companies and a cost of a coal economy for coalfield communities — “accidents happen,” the governor has said.

Caitlin O’Dell doesn’t think that accidents just happen, or that Gov. Tomblin, the mine safety board and the rest of them are unable to prevent the next mining death. I wonder how all those folks would explain their inaction to Andrew O’Dell in a few years, when he’s old enough to understand that his father’s death didn’t have to happen. It’s not too late to stop these crushing and pinning deaths from causing pain to another West Virginia family. But doing so is going to require more than closing the door, so we don’t have to hear the sounds of a crying little boy who won’t ever get to know his father.

Caitlin O’Dell put it best when she was so dismayed by the board’s inaction on proximity devices that she got up to leave yesterday’s meeting, but not before telling board members:

I’m really disappointed. If you can’t agree on something, it’s going to happen again and at that point, the blood is on your hands.

4 Responses to “Closing the door: Why W.Va. coal mines aren’t safer”

  1. M says:

    A continuous miner-only rule seems like a waste of time. Not that people aren’t getting hurt way too often around them, but those machines are big, slow, and complicated to move. If their crews are trained and properly supervised, no one should ever be in danger.

    Scoops and shuttle cars, on the other hand, move all the time at higher speeds and low/obstructed visibility, without supervisors present, and not always in predictable patterns. If WV was pursuing a serious proximity detection rule, shouldn’t the starting point be the shuttle cars and scoops for that reason alone. Not to mention the fact that more fatal accidents are actually caused by scoops or shuttle cars.

  2. Maynard McFerrin says:

    As an ex Safety Manager in the construction industry, I abhor the fact that no one sitting on this so called board can pull the trigger on much needed regulations to make the mining industry safer for its employees. Seems to me these individuals with all their mining experience would be better suited back at the mines because they seem to be incompetent to make decisions to save lives. The worst thing anyone can do is (Nothing). I think the people making decisions to save lives should not get their paychecks from the ones who would be impacted the most. The inability of these individuals to make decisions will ultimately cause others to perish. My mother always said: “Where there is a will, there is a way”.

  3. BOUTTIME says:

    Profit before safety … That hasn’t changed!

  4. the curious says:

    M really said I think. A half-measure proximity rule that only would only apply to continuous miners would be a travesty. Not to denigrate the safety gains of proximity detection systems on cont. miners (sadly operators have been injured and killed in crushing/pinning-type accidents by machines they were operating ), but I think M is absolutely correct — other mobile equipment in the mining in environment is both more prevalent and more mobile (and perhaps with worse visibilities). Therefore, I think the big safety gain would occur with instrumenting these machines with proximity detection.

    All that said, it would be interesting to look at the number of accidents for each type of mobile equipment (totals, per units in operation, difficult to measure, but per distance traveled, etc).

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