Coal Tattoo

Is this really about protecting coal miners?

Mine Explosion Anniversary

It was fascinating to listen earlier today as members of the House of Delegates approved a little-noticed piece of legislation called SB 603.

In explaining the bill and several amendments to fellow delegates, House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin was saying that the bill’s purpose was to set a state limit on methane — the concentration at which mining machines would automatically shut off to avoid explains — more stringent than that set by the federal government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Well, it’s true that West Virginia law contains a methane shutoff concentration that is more stringent — lower — than the 2.0 percent set by MSHA, that’s not at all what this bill was really about.

What this particular bill is actually all about is fixing the situation that the Tomblin administration and lawmakers got themselves into when they wrote their post-Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster law two years ago, and wanted to make that law — miserably weak though it was — sound like it was a major accomplishment.

Along the way, the bill actually increases the amount of methane allowed before mining machines will shut off, and it protects members of the state’s Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety from having to do their jobs.

To understand, we need a little background. Recall a story we published in the Gazette in January 2013:

Last week in his inaugural address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted his administration’s efforts to ensure the safety and health of West Virginia’s coal miners.

“We made our mines safer by passing a comprehensive mine safety bill to protect the thousands of miners across this state who work each and every day so we may all enjoy a better life,” the governor said after being sworn in for a new term.

Today, though — more than 10 months after that bill was passed — a key provision isn’t being enforced, officials confirmed last week. And it’s not likely to be enforced any time soon, they said.

Tomblin and legislative leaders repeatedly touted language aimed at tightening the state’s requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when methane is detected underground.

State regulators, though, have never written rules to implement that part of the legislation. Without those rules, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is prohibited from enforcing the tighter methane-shutoff requirements.

Understand this:

Coal operators are required to monitor underground mines for methane, which can explode when it is present at between 5 percent and 15 percent of the air.

Under federal rules, methane monitors are designed to automatically shut down underground mining equipment if the explosive gas is detected at concentrations of 2.0 percent or greater. The idea is that shutting down mining equipment removes a potential source of a spark that could ignite methane and cause a catastrophic explosion.

And here’s what West Virginia did in Gov. Tomblin’s mine safety bill:

Initially, legislation introduced by House Democratic leaders, coal-cutting devices on mining equipment would be required to automatically shut down when methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent.

During negotiations with coal industry and UMW lobbyists, the language was re-written so that the automatic shutdown would occur only if methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent for a “sustained period.” Lawmakers required the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety — a panel of industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor — to write rules to define the phrase “sustained period.”

Lawmakers approved the legislation on March 6, 2012. Tomblin officially signed the measure on March 16 and then held a second, public signing ceremony on March 21. The legislation took effect in June, 90 days after its passage.

Under the bill, board members had four months from the bill’s effective date — or by October — to write the rules. However, industry and labor representatives apparently were unable to reach agreement on how to define “sustained period,” with industry officials wanting a looser definition, and UMW officials a more restrictive one.

Special Gubernatorial Primary Election

If you’ve followed this story at all, you know that the coal board members just couldn’t bring themselves to reach some sort of agreement on this rule (see previous stories here, here and here, for example). Eventually, board members gave up. They asked lawmakers to change the law, so that they didn’t have to keep delaying any action on the methane rule.

So that’s where we get back to SB 603. This bill eliminates the mandate that the board come up with a rule to define “sustained period” of time. In fact, it deletes the phrase “sustained period” from the statute altogether. In doing so, it also eliminates the mandate that mining machines shut off when methane levels reach 1.25. Instead, they would have to shut off at 1.5 percent.

One amazing thing here is that the state Legislature and Gov. Tomblin ordered a state board — whose members are appointed by the governor — and the board members simply refused. Lawmakers and the governor went along with that behavior, and are in the process of changing the law to make it all work out for the board.

The other amazing thing is that the the legislative note at the bottom of the bill describes SB 603 like this:

The purpose of this bill is to improve coal mine health and safety in West Virginia.