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W.Va. mine training law unenforced

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Tomblin administration is not moving forward with language in West Virginia's new mine safety bill that could require tougher safety training at coal-mining operations that routinely violate state regulations.

Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said his agency has not yet used its authority to take action when coal operators repeatedly allow hazardous working conditions.

The new "pattern of conduct" provision was added to West Virginia law as part of a mine safety bill passed in March 2012 and touted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as "comprehensive" legislation.

Under the change, the state office is now required to take action if the director determines that his inspectors have found "a pattern of conduct creating a hazardous condition at a mine."

The law says that White's agency must, after such a finding, notify the state Board of Miners' Training, Education and Certification of that finding. Then, the board is required to "cause additional training to occur at the mine" to address the safety problems and hazards found at the operation.

During an interview last week, White said his agency has created a new form for inspectors to use when they want to report a "pattern of conduct" to supervising inspectors or agency headquarters in Charleston. So far, though, no such reports have been submitted.

"Has anyone filled one of those out yet? No," White said.

The forms have space for agency staff to list the name of the company and the mine, and to outline the number of violations, accidents or safety complaints at that mine.

White's agency has not come up with a definition of how many violations or accidents over a particular period of time constitutes a "pattern of conduct" and is leaving that up to staff to determine on a case-by-case basis.

"It's not something that is shot out of a computer," White said.

White said he wants a state inspector to turn to the "pattern of conduct" provision only when "he feels like he has done all he can."

White said that, for now, he would prefer not to report mine operators to the training board, and wants his agency and its inspectors to try to address any problems they find at mining operations.

"My whole thing is, before going to the training board, trying to get a mine back on track," White said. "Personally, I think we fail as an agency if we run to the training board as if there's nothing we can do."

In the past few months, the Tomblin administration's lack of action to implement the state's new mine safety law has come under additional scrutiny, especially following four coal-mining deaths that occurred during a two-week period last month.

State officials have delayed implementing new methane monitoring requirements, have not begun enforcing new coal-dust control standards and are not yet issuing increased fines for safety and health violations.

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


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