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Tomblin offers mixed package of mine safety reforms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin promised Wednesday night to seek more state mine safety improvements, but his list of proposals fell short of what independent investigators have said is needed to truly reform West Virginia's mining operations.

 

In a State of the State address that repeated Tomblin's strong allegiance to the coal industry, the governor also outlined his legislative response to investigative findings concerning the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

"Just as we must continue to mine coal, we must make certain that our miners are safe," Tomblin said.

Among the measures Tomblin said he would submit for legislative consideration:

• Increasing protection for "whistleblowers," or miners who complain about safety practices in the workplace.

Establishing a state prohibition on providing advance notice that an inspector is coming to a mine -- something that is already a crime under federal law for U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections.

Mandating improved methane sensors in longwall-mining operations and beefing up statement rules regarding pre-shift safety examinations by mine officials.

Starting a yearlong study on the training of state inspectors, mine foremen and rank-and-file miners.

"Coal mining is a dangerous profession, but we can make it safer," the governor said. "One death in our mines is one death too many."

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said his organization is likely to support the governor's proposals.

"All the conversations we've had have been very positive," Raney said. "They are constructive changes. It's all things that fix little things."

Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who conducted an independent review of the Upper Big Branch disaster, said the problem with Tomblin's agenda is it focuses too narrowly on smaller initiatives.

McAteer's team had called not only for specific steps to make top corporate management more responsible for safety violations, but also a broader examination of the impact of coal's political power on enforcement of safety rules.

"We were really talking about a sea change in the approach that West Virginia has to take on mine safety, not just tinkering around the edges," McAteer said. "We have to change the way we do business."

While the number of coal-mining deaths in West Virginia dropped from 35 in 2010 to six last year, the state has led the nation with 116 coal-mining fatalities over the last decade. And West Virginia had the most mining deaths in three of the five years since 2006, when a series of disasters brought renewed concerns to the issue.

So far, Tomblin's legislative proposals have been crafted without any direct input from McAteer, who was appointed as a special investigator by then-Gov. Joe Manchin after the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 Upper Big Branch workers. Also, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has yet to release a report of its investigation of the disaster.

And while Tomblin aides have said the governor's legislative package has not yet been finalized, some significant proposals from state mine safety officials -- such as much more specific state regulations on mine ventilation plans and more restrictive work rules for apprentice miners -- were missing from Wednesday night's speech.

"The governor's office is still fine-tuning the legislation, and it would be premature to address these issues until the governor has signed off on it," said Jacqueline Proctor, Tomblin's communications director.

Some proposals that have been touted by Tomblin's staff -- such as stronger standards for "rock-dusting" to prevent a buildup of explosive coal dust -- are already in place through executive order and are mandated nationwide by new MSHA rules. It's unclear how another proposal to mandate methane sensors on longwall-mining equipment would relate to existing state and federal requirements.

Tomblin also embraced a long-standing coal industry proposal for some sort of a state-mandated drug-testing program for miners, though again details of the initiative were sketchy.

In his speech, the governor said his program would be based on a new law in Kentucky, which mandates drug testing prior to obtaining a miner's license, and another measure in Virginia, which requires companies to perform pre-employment drug screening.

"Now is the time to make sure that our mines are drug free," Tomblin said. "No workplace can tolerate a person impaired by drugs, particularly in our mines."

Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union, said his organization would look closely at the governor's proposal. Most major mining companies already require worker drug testing, Smith said, and the union wants to ensure the state's plan includes providing help to any miners who developed drug problems.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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