A funny thing happened as this year’s West Virginia legislative session comes to an end … Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had a choice between siding with coal miners and coal operators, and he went with the operators.
What’s most incredible about that is the headline on the press release from the West Virginia AFL-CIO, in which that group’s president, Kenny Perdue, called the governor’s approval of the “safety rollback” legislation “shocking”:
In his long career as a lawmaker, Governor Tomblin had always worked to adopt laws that help protect coal miners – until now. Senate Bill 357 is a disappointing step backward in mine safety, and I had hoped the Governor would veto the legislation.
How soon they forget … It wasn’t so terribly long ago that Governor Tomblin offered a fairly weak mine safety bill in response to the state’s worst coal-mining disaster in a generation. And the cornerstone of that bill was an industry pet proposal to drug test coal miners, despite the fact that there was no link at all between drug use and those 29 miners getting blown up at Upper Big Branch.
And if that weren’t enough, the legislation was further weakened in a backroom deal with coal industry lobbyists, and then the Tomblin administration did its best to avoid and delay any real enforcement of the few reforms included in that bill.
So I guess when I hear that a top state labor leader is shocked that Governor Tomblin signed legislation drawn directly from the West Virginia Coal Association’s legislative agenda, well, it reminds me of that great scene from Casablanca:
Now, the governor’s story is that they’ve got this great new legislative resolution that is going to take care of one of the issues with this bill — the safety concerns raised by language concerning having miners working deep underground during complicated and dangerous moves of mining equipment. His press release yesterday said:
As part of my decision to sign the bill, I have worked with legislative leadership to pass a resolution directing the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety to adopt rules related to the movement of underground equipment. I strongly urge the Board to collaborate and develop responsible regulations that will ensure the safety of our hardworking coal miners while allowing operators additional flexibility to be more productive and competitive long-term.
Lawmakers have already previously directed the state’s mine safety technology task force to come up with some resolution of this issue, and that group has never done so.
And has everyone forgotten that the coal board’s inability to reach agreement on a new methane rule was the cause of repeated delays in enforcing one key provision of Governor Tomblin’s post-UBB safety bill (see here, here and here)? In fact, the board was so incapable of doing anything on this issue that lawmakers went back into the code last year and eliminated the requirement that the board write the methane rules — saving the industry-labor panel from having to, you know, do its job. Remarkably, that bill listed as its purpose:
The purpose of this bill is to improve coal mine health and safety in West Virginia.
Last night, I asked Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman about all of this, and why anybody would think that the coal board could really get something done on equipment moves, and here’s what he said:
The governor believes the two sides will work together to find a collaborative solution that will result in rules that both protect miners and offer flexibility to operators.
At one point, the rhetoric from Governor Tomblin about coal mine safety was that the state would “do all we can” to protect miners. Then, it was that state leaders would ” do all that is necessary to prevent another mining disaster.” At some point, the governor’s goal became to pass “meaningful” mine safety legislation. Eventually, though, I guess the governor decided that, well, “accidents do occur.”