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Agency report urges action on mine safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders need to enact a long list of additional reforms to protect the health and safety of West Virginia's coal miners, according to a new state report.

The report from the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training urges revised inspection and enforcement measures, tougher standards for preventing mine explosions and a requirement for proximity-detection systems that would prevent common crushing and pinning accidents.

In the 85-page report, Tomblin and lawmakers also are urged to provide more money for coal mine regulation and safety training, and increase pay so the agency can maintain a quality inspection staff.

"West Virginia has repeatedly had the highest coal mine fatality and accident totals in the country," the report says. "The state must correct that."

Along with better pay, the report recommends that state mine inspectors be given more authority to require hazards to be remedied, to target problem mine operators, and hold corporate officers and mine owners responsible for safety violations.

"If West Virginia wants safe mines and healthy miners, it must create a culture of safety," the report says. "Other states have managed to do so, and individual companies have accomplished it."

The report, dated Dec. 31, was prepared for the mine safety agency by the West Virginia University Law Institute, under the direction of WVU law professor Bob Bastress.

Its release comes just as lawmakers return to Charleston for the 2014 legislative session and as the Tomblin administration faces a new lawsuit alleging inaction on some key mine safety issues.

The report calls for a broad range of mine safety improvements, saying far more steps are needed, despite the passage just two years ago of legislation that Tomblin called "comprehensive."

It says the state has yet to commit itself to the goal of a safe and healthy mining industry.

"That commitment must start with legislative commitment of the resources needed to communicate that the state is serious about creating and enforcing a system of mine safety," the report says.

The report addresses two of the issues raised in the lawsuit, brought by lawyers from the public-interest firm Mountain State Justice on behalf of a working coal miner and a coal miner's widow.

First, the report recommends that the state require mine operators to install technology that would stop underground mining equipment when it comes too close to miners. Safety experts say that these proximity-detection systems can save miners from being crushed or pinned by fast-moving mining machines.

The lawsuit has alleged inaction by both the state mine safety office and the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety on rules that would require these systems.

Second, the report calls for lawmakers to reverse their action -- taken in early 2010 -- to eliminate a slot for a seventh mine safety board member who could break ties. By law, the board's six members are now equally divided between industry representatives of United Mine Workers officials. Previously, the director of the mine safety office, a gubernatorial appointee, served that tie-breaking role.

The lawsuit alleges that the new board makeup sets up a situation where no safety initiatives can be pursued because of repeated 3-3 votes.

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


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