Drug link to coal mine deaths is not clear
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As he defends his proposal to require drug-testing for all West Virginia coal miners, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is pointing to two state mining deaths he blames on alcohol or drug abuse.
However, a review of official government reports on those two incidents show the causes were more complicated than the governor's statement suggests.
In one, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training didn't mention drug or alcohol use in its formal investigative report, but later tried to strip the license of a miner who was involved after he failed a drug test.
In the other, agency investigators blamed mine managers who they said had allowed the miner who was killed to work his shift after he'd been drinking.
The findings raise more questions about Tomblin's proposal, which already is under fire from the United Mine Workers union and an independent state investigator. Those critics argue that including the controversial drug-testing language in a bill meant to provide legislative follow-up to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster diverts attention from more important safety reforms.
"There were no alcohol or drugs involved in Upper Big Branch," said Dennis O'Dell, administrator for health and safety at the UMW. "I don't think mine inspectors need to be drug and alcohol police to take them away from what their duties really are."
O'Dell was among those who testified last week during a two-day legislative hearing on Tomblin's legislation and a rival mine-safety bill co-sponsored by House Speaker Rick Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat whose father died in a mining accident.
During Wednesday's testimony, longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer encouraged lawmakers to separate the drug-testing proposal from the rest of the governor's bill, and deal first with what he said were more urgent safety problems.
The next day, Tomblin appeared on statewide radio to defend his bill.
"We believe that the vast majority of our miners are drug and alcohol free," the governor said on the MetroNews "Talkline" show. "What we're wanting to do is make sure we do everything we can do to keep our miners safe."
The governor added, "There were at least two fatalities that I've been informed about that happened because of impaired workers out there."
Administration officials later confirmed that the governor was referring to the 2008 death of a miner at Consol Energy's McElroy Mine in Marshall County and the 2009 death of a contract reclamation worker at Patriot Coal's Samples Mine in Kanawha County.
In the McElroy incident, 58-year-old Victor Goudy was killed when he was pinned between two underground mining vehicles on Oct. 19, 2008.
William Coulson, a general inside laborer at the mine, was driving an underground locomotive that ran into another series of mine cars, which then crushed Goudy up against another locomotive. At the time, Goudy was kneeling down next to the mine cars.
State investigators blamed the incident on the lack of a "conspicuous light or approved reflector" on the back of the mine cars that Coulson ran into. Their eight-page report, released in February 2009, didn't mention alcohol or drugs. Consol had tested Coulson and found his blood contained hydrocodone, for which he had a prescription, and oxycodone, for which he did not, according to court records.
Before releasing their fatal-accident report, state investigators filed a separate action seeking to strip Coulson of his mining license. They argued, among other things, that Coulson violated existing state law prohibiting carrying "any intoxicants" into coal mines or working in the mines "while under the influence of intoxicants."
A report by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration did not mention drugs or alcohol or include their use as a "root cause" of the accident.
In the other incident Tomblin refers to, 28-year-old Mark Allen Gray was killed on July 28, 2009, when he ran his rock truck off a haul road and into a sediment pond while performing reclamation work for Hawkeye Contracting Co. LLC for Patriot Coal at the Samples Mine.
The state medical examiner found evidence of marijuana in Gray's blood and that his blood-alcohol level was 0.08 percent. Investigators said they found an empty beer can in Gray's truck, and a bag containing remnants of marijuana on his person.
In their report, state investigators said they found that a company foreman had smelled alcohol on Gray on two occasions prior to the fatal incident. Also, a security guard saw Gray putting unopened cans of beer into his lunchbox at the start of a recent shift, the state report said.
State officials cited the company for violating a rule that required mine management to remove Gray from the work site "after having reasonable cause to believe that he could be under the influence" of alcohol.
Member of Gray's family repeatedly have questioned the accuracy of the state report. An MSHA investigation reported that the haul road where the accident occurred was muddy and rutted from recent rains at the time of the incident, but that the conditions could have been "a normal part of the road development and construction process."
During last week's hearings, McAteer told lawmakers that his investigative team was not aware of any comprehensive reports that attempt to examine the relationship between drug or alcohol abuse and fatal coal-mining accidents.
McAteer said that "no one in their right mind wants an impaired miner working next to them or working down the road or anywhere" in the coal industry.
Also, McAteer noted that the National Mining Association opposed a Bush administration drug-testing proposal for the coal industry, at least in part because it would have required operators to give first-time offenders a chance to seek treatment before they could be fired.
Coal industry officials have praised the lack of such a requirement in Tomblin's bill. Chris Hamilton, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association, said he couldn't provide specific numbers, but that drug and alcohol use are definitely a problem in the industry.
"There's clear evidence that there are drugs and alcohol involved in accidents within our industry," Hamilton said. "How widespread, what percentage, we don't have hard, fast statistics on that. But it is a problem, and we have a zero tolerance."
McAteer said any industrywide policy should include treatment options, providing a balance between safety on the job and helping employees who develop a problem -- especially if they got hooked on drugs while being treated for a workplace injury.
"All of us are vulnerable to temptation and to additions, and that goes for everyone," McAteer said. "How do we fix the problem? That's what we need to address."
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the UMW, said some union agreements on drug testing allow workers to be fired after their first positive result, but that the UMW tries to negotiate language that allows workers to seek treatment and not lose their job if they admit they have a problem.
"We believe that people should have the opportunity to get treatment," Smith said. "No question about it."
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a UMW representative, said labor and industry have been involved in intense discussions since the legislative hearings to try to find a compromise.
"I'm certainly supportive of setting some minimum standards, and getting some data to see what kind of a problem we have out there," Caputo said. "We need to deal with facts and with real data."
Late Friday afternoon, the Governor's Office issued a statement in the name of mine safety Director C.A. Phillips.
"We are fooling ourselves if we think substance abuse does not occur in West Virginia's mines," the statement said. "Substance abuse does not stop at our borders and it is not just a problem in our neighboring states. As a former coal miner, I would not want to work beside someone who is impaired on drugs or alcohol."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.