CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week in his inaugural address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted his administration's efforts to ensure the safety and health of West Virginia's coal miners.
"We made our mines safer by passing a comprehensive mine safety bill to protect the thousands of miners across this state who work each and every day so we may all enjoy a better life," the governor said after being sworn in for a new term.
Today, though -- more than 10 months after that bill was passed -- a key provision isn't being enforced, officials confirmed last week. And it's not likely to be enforced any time soon, they said.
Tomblin and legislative leaders repeatedly touted language aimed at tightening the state's requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when methane is detected underground.
State regulators, though, have never written rules to implement that part of the legislation. Without those rules, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training is prohibited from enforcing the tighter methane-shutoff requirements.
House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said he had heard the rules were delayed, but had not kept up with the details of what had happened.
"I know they were struggling with it," said Caputo, a United Mine Workers union official. "I want them to find a way to get this done. That is clearly a key requirement of this mine safety bill."
Methane is naturally present in coal mines, loosely attached to coal molecules when deposits are under pressure. Mining removes that pressure, releasing the gas. Methane is highly explosive, posing a constant and serious danger, especially if coal operators don't properly ventilate their mines. At Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, a small methane ignition on April 5, 2010, grew into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion that killed 29 miners, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Coal operators are required to monitor underground mines for methane, which can explode when it is present at between 5 percent and 15 percent of the air.
Under federal rules, methane monitors are designed to automatically shut down underground mining equipment if the explosive gas is detected at concentrations of 2.0 percent or greater. The idea is that shutting down mining equipment removes a potential source of a spark that could ignite methane and cause a catastrophic explosion.
In West Virginia, Tomblin announced plans for a stronger standard as part of a broader mine safety bill he touted as part of his 2012 State of the State address.
"Coal mining is a dangerous profession, but we can make it safer," Tomblin said at the time. "One death in our mines is one death too many."
Initially, legislation introduced by House Democratic leaders, coal-cutting devices on mining equipment would be required to automatically shut down when methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent.
During negotiations with coal industry and UMW lobbyists, the language was re-written so that the automatic shutdown would occur only if methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent for a "sustained period." Lawmakers required the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety -- a panel of industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor -- to write rules to define the phrase "sustained period."
Lawmakers approved the legislation on March 6, 2012. Tomblin officially signed the measure on March 16 and then held a second, public signing ceremony on March 21. The legislation took effect in June, 90 days after its passage.
Under the bill, board members had four months from the bill's effective date -- or by October -- to write the rules. However, industry and labor representatives apparently were unable to reach agreement on how to define "sustained period," with industry officials wanting a looser definition, and UMW officials a more restrictive one.
"We're saying [make mining machines] shut down immediately," said Ted Hapney, a UMW representative to the board.
In fact, a year before Tomblin's bill was even considered, the mine safety board -- after a legislatively mandated study of the issue -- proposed a new rule to require coal-cutting devices on machines to automatically shut down when methane reaches 1.25 percent. That proposal, submitted to the board by administrator Joel Watts in December 2011, was never finalized by board members.