Just a few hours before the second and final debate between gubernatorial candidates Jim Justice and Bill Cole — and in the wake of last week’s devastating report about Justice by NPR — the United Mine Workers union is stepping up to defend their candidate. Here’s UMWA President Cecil Roberts in what the union says is a “reality check” on which candidate is best for mine safety:
I read the NPR story regarding the mine safety fines incurred by mines operated by companies that Jim Justice owns. Let me be clear: I believe his company needs to pay any fines it has incurred. My understanding is that those fines are, in fact, being paid right now.
But if we want to talk about which candidate for West Virginia Governor cares more about the health and safety of working miners, let’s make sure the facts are clear. Jim Justice has never questioned the need for mine safety laws and regulations.
The prepared statement from President Roberts went on:
Bill Cole hasn’t just questioned whether we need safety laws for West Virginia miners, he played a key part in slashing the state’s mine safety and health law in 2015. First, the law Bill Cole pushed through the State Senate abolished a commission that was charged with making sure miners weren’t breathing harmful diesel exhaust emissions while working underground.
Second, Bill Cole agreed with those who thought it was not a problem for miners to have to carry an injured miner 1,500 feet to get to mechanized transportation and then be brought outside for medical treatment. Anyone who has ever walked underground over broken rock and lumps of coal knows how difficult that is at the best of times. Trying to do that over the equivalent of five football fields while rushing to get an injured co-worker to safety is the last thing miners need to be doing.
And third, Bill Cole supported putting miners’ lives in danger by allowing companies to move large equipment around in a mine and putting that equipment between working miners and escape routes if something bad happens. This law was put into place back in the 1970s when miners were killed as a result of this practice. We should never allow something to happen underground that we know has already lead to miners’ deaths. But Bill Cole did.
This extreme legislation loosens coal mining safety regulations to the benefit of big corporations without any regard for worker safety.
Oddly, the UMWA didn’t mention in its statement today that the bill in question was eventually signed by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, over the union’s objections.
Also not mentioned is what happened the following legislative session, earlier this year, when the UMWA actually went along with another coal lobby bill that weakened mine safety protections. That bill also passed, and was signed by Gov. Tomblin. Union officials said they had little choice but to try to reach that compromise bill, fearing the industry — and a Republican controlled Legislature with Cole as Senate President — easily had the votes to pass something worse.
UPDATED: In response to the UMWA statement, Sen. Cole’s campaign issued its own statement, which I’ve posted here. Essentially, their position is that the union has “launched a false attack” on Cole’s record and that both pieces of legislation were simply meant to “update” state laws on mine safety.
To be clear about that NPR story and the $15 million in various debts it outlined Justice having, only the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration fines were reported by NPR as having any sort of payment plan. Most of the debts reported on by NPR were overdue taxes.
The UMWA statement, by the way, doesn’t really address this issue, also reported by NPR:
Delinquent Justice mines also continue to have worse-than-average safety records, according to NPR’s analysis of MSHA injury and violations data. Our analysis shows that injury rates (for injuries forcing time away from work) are twice the national average and violations rates more than four times the national rate during the years the Justice mines failed to pay penalties.
UPDATED: I did ask the UMWA for a response to the fact that Justice seems to so regularly allow his MSHA fines to become delinquent, and union spokesman Phil Smith said, “Operators should pay their fines and pay them on time. “
President Roberts has somewhat famously said that Jim Justice is “one of the good coal operators.” And in today’s statement, Roberts said this:
This election is about which candidate will best represent working families in West Virginia. Jim Justice has a clear record of working to create good jobs for West Virginians, even when times are tough like they are now. Bill Cole has a record of supporting measures that make those jobs unsafe and insecure, with lower wages and no ability for workers to stand up for themselves. The choice for UMWA members and all West Virginia workers has been and remains clear: Jim Justice is on our side.