Proximity to the public: West Virginia’s mine safety board starting to get much-needed attention

November 25, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

MineBoardIndustry

The industry representatives to the state’s mine safety board are, from left to right, Charles Russell of Arch Coal, Terry Hudson of Patriot Coal, and Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association.

When we last left the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, board members were somehow able to refuse the request from a miner’s widow  (see also this) that they finally get moving on a state rule to request the use of life-saving proximity detection technology in our state’s underground coal miners.

I was thinking about that last meeting, held in early October in Flatwoods, and remembering the looks on the board members’ faces when Mrs. Caitlin O’Dell introduced herself as simply “Steven O’Dell’s widow” when the board went around the room, insisting that all visitors identify themselves. They do that every meeting. The funny thing is, the board members don’t bother to tell the visitors who they are — they don’t give us their names or what coal company they work for.

Maybe it works that way because it’s not very often that members of the public have the time or inclination to take in a mine safety board meeting. I wonder sometimes what they would think if they did.

Take last week’s meeting in Charleston. The issue of proximity detection — summarily dismissed by the board in October — wasn’t on the agenda. But the board took it up anyway, tossing remarks back and forth across the room. The coal industry has decided now it wants a rule, so Chris Hamilton rattles off some vague explanation of what he thinks it should be. Not to be outdone, the United Mine Workers now has their own version. There’s an undercurrent of both sides trying to outdo or outmaneuver the other — certainly not one of labor and management working together to ensure miners are kept healthy and safe.

I’m not saying the board members don’t want to protect miners. But would a stranger who walked into the meeting think so? Mrs. O’Dell certainly didn’t. As we reported last month following the board’s voting down numerous proximity technology proposals:

Caitlin O’Dell got up to leave, telling board members as she walked out of the meeting room, “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.”

MineBoardLabor

The mine safety board’s UMWA representatives are Teddy Hapney, Gary Trout and Carl Egnor.

Family members of miners who are killed on the job can have a powerful impact on agencies like this board. Two nice ladies I’ve gotten to know are Jeanie Gray and Carol Confere. They’re the mother and the aunt of a miner named Mark Gray, who was killed on the job back in July 2009.  They started coming to board meetings to object to the state’s report on Mr. Gray’s death. They said it was incomplete and inaccurate.  Some board members agreed with them, and eventually a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration report was published with details that the state hadn’t included in its account.

It’s taken many months, but Mark Gray’s family has the board about convinced that it should adopt new rules governing signs that would direct emergency officials to mine sites where certain contractors are working. They’re also continuing to push for tougher rules to govern surface mine haul roads. But at last week’s board meeting, the board couldn’t take up either proposal. One of the three industry members dropped out of the meeting at the last minute. Board rules say they can’t vote on anything unless all six members are present — and, no, there is no provision in state law for anyone to break the inevitable 3-3 ties between labor and industry.

Last week’s meeting also included another new guest, a young attorney named Sam Petsonk. He’s a former staffer who worked on mine safety issues for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd and is now representing miners as part of Mountain State Justice’s Miner Safety and Health Project. For his trouble in attending the meeting, Mr. Petsonk received a lecture from a board member who explained “if you were familiar with the mining process” it wouldn’t be necessary to bother us with questions about the details of what the board was doing.  When coal company employees — or UMWA agents for that matter — agree to serve on this board, they become public officials. Shouldn’t they be pleased that a member of the public is interested in helping the board protect coal miners?

Certainly, I don’t attend every board meeting. There are lots of other things to cover. But I try to keep up with what they’re doing. When I do attend, I’m often the only reporter there. Tim Huber from the AP used to come sometimes, but with AP’s staffing cuts, I’m sure it will be a long time before they send a reporter to a board meeting again. Sometimes the Gazette’s Paul Nyden goes. When he worked for the State Journal, Taylor Kuykendall frequently covered the board, and he at least tries to keep up with them via phone for SNL Financial. Last week, there were quite a few reporters glued to their computers, listening to Don Blankenship debate Hoppy Kercheval. I was the only media person at the board meeting, and I had to duck out for a bit to catch Blankenship vs. Hoppy.

It sounds like Mr. Petsonk might become a frequent visitor at board meetings. Mark Gray’s family tells me they plan on continuing to push for the rules they proposed. Maybe Mrs. O’Dell will be back, to keep an eye on what board members are doing about proximity devices.  And maybe the board should get used to the public paying attention to what it does — and what it doesn’t do.

2 Responses to “Proximity to the public: West Virginia’s mine safety board starting to get much-needed attention”

  1. christopher says:

    Is there a regular schedule for these meetings?

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    If by regular you mean the same day every month or something, no. But you can check for their next meeting dates online http://apps.sos.wv.gov/adlaw/meetingnotices/

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