Coal Tattoo

How soon we forget: Mine safety in W.Va.


One way that West Virginia lawmakers seem to like to avoid taking stronger action on important public health and safety issues is to put off much-needed reforms until someone does a study or a report on the issue. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting more and better information — assuming that you plan to actually look at that information and follow up on the public policy implications of it.

That’s not always what really happens at the West Virginia Legislature. Just look, for example, at how lawmakers do nothing about the ongoing problems related to the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom, at the same time that they move terribly quickly to protect a Department of Environmental Protection decision to ignore landfill intake limits to ensure drillers have somewhere to dump their waste.

This method of ignoring important issues was on display yesterday at the Capitol, where a special legislative committee on Labor and Worker Safety Issues met during this month’s interim session.

The committee was scheduled to hear a presentation from Eugene White (above, left), director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, about this report, That report was required by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety bill, passed in 2012. That legislation mandated:

The director shall, by December 31, 2013, report to the Legislature and Governor on the need for revisions in the state’s underground mine safety enforcement procedures. The director shall initiate the study using appropriate academic resources and mining safety organizations to conduct a program review of state enforcement procedures to evaluate what reforms will assure that mining operations follow state mandated safety protocols. The report shall include recommended legislation, rules and policies, consider various options for improving inspections, accountability and equitable and timely administrative procedures that cause remediation of hazardous working conditions.

As readers may recall, while Gov. Tomblin, his handlers and a lot of lawmakers and cheerleaders called the governor’s legislation comprehensive, it was really anything but (see here, here and here). We also know that the Tomblin administration was slow to actually put in effect the few tough changes included in the governor’s bill.  And the point of this report was to outline other needed changes, so lawmakers could act on those, based on the facts and recommendations in this report.

First off, though, this report was completed and provided to lawmakers nearly a year ago now.  We wrote a story about it in early January, explaining:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders need to enact a long list of additional reforms to protect the health and safety of West Virginia’s coal miners, according to a new state report.

The report from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training urges revised inspection and enforcement measures, tougher standards for preventing mine explosions and a requirement for proximity-detection systems that would prevent common crushing and pinning accidents.

In the 85-page report, Tomblin and lawmakers also are urged to provide more money for coal mine regulation and safety training, and increase pay so the agency can maintain a quality inspection staff.

“West Virginia has repeatedly had the highest coal mine fatality and accident totals in the country,” the report says. “The state must correct that.”

But, the only thing that lawmakers did about mine safety during last year’s session was take action to confirm it was just fine with them that the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety didn’t follow a mandate to toughen methane monitoring n the state’s underground mines.

The only real safety reform that took place this year in West Virginia’s mines was a new rule to require proximity detection devices on certain mining equipment. But that rule allows mine operators quite a long time to comply, and it was passed only after repeated demands for action from mine widow and safety advocate Caitlin O’Dell.

Mine Explosion


 (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

So the committee and Eugene White’s office are already really a year behind schedule in working through this report and getting moving on the reforms it suggests. But instead of a comprehensive review of the report, what we got from the committee and the Tomblin administration was more of their “all drug tests, all the time” agenda. While we did see this year a mining death that state regulators suggested was in large part caused by alcohol, and it’s obvious that getting drugs out of the mines is important, we still know that drugs had nothing to do with the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and the administration’s own reports have provided mixed information about links between drugs and serious accidents in the mines.

Where was the discussion of the state report’s recommendations for tougher fines, better inspections, enhanced criminal liability, and strengthened subpoena powers for state mine safety investigators?

What we heard from Eugene White was that safety conditions have improved dramatically in our state’s coal mines.  Yet the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration still lists West Virginia with more coal-mining deaths this year than any other state, and the MSHA count doesn’t include one death that federal officials haven’t yet decided is chargeable to the industry.

You might also think that the remarkable events that state and federal officials alleged occurred at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine — where inspectors allege mine management failed to report a significant near-miss that, if properly studied, might have prevented two deaths just days later — would have deserved some discussion by members of this committee.

Making matters worse is some of the media coverage of yesterday’s hearing. Both West Virginia Public Broadcasting and The Associated Press focused only on the discussion of drug testing of coal miners.  No mention of what the state report really talked about, or the fact that state officials and lawmakers literally skipped over the bulk of the recommendations.  Luckily, Pam Pritt from the Beckley paper was there, and explained in her story:

The meeting barely touched on a nearly 80-page Mine Safety Report that was released last December. Included in that was a report specific to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster which occurred in 2010.

So often in West Virginia, the important story isn’t what public officials say, but what they don’t say.