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Way clears for temporary mine chief

State senators suspended rules Wednesday to hurriedly pass legislation permitting a person that has never worked in an underground coal mine to head the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

The action is a step toward allowing Gov. Joe Manchin to temporarily appoint a West Virginia University professor to the post.

Current law requires the director of the office to have five years of experience as an underground coal miner. The new bill (SB539) also allows for five years of “education, training or experience in underground coal mining safety.”

The governor said he plans to appoint WVU professor James Mitchell Dean, who conducts safety seminars at mines throughout the state, to be director until a permanent replacement can be found for Doug Conaway, who announced he is stepping down.

“We’re not going to miss a beat,” Manchin said, adding that Dean is well known by federal mining officials and knows West Virginia’s coal mines. This year, West Virginia has seen 16 miners killed in four incidents.

In response, Manchin shoved three-pronged coal mine safety legislation through the Legislature and had mining firms conduct additional safety checks. Federal officials are considering similar changes in safety laws and have sent additional mine inspectors to the state.

Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said state law says the mine safety director’s job can never be vacant, fueling the rush.

Manchin plans a national search for a permanent replacement for Conaway and said Dean would stay in the job for up to six months. WVU has agreed to “loan” him to the state until then.

“We’ll have him back in school by September,” Manchin said.

Kessler expects an extended search for the right replacement for Conaway. “I think you’ll see the governor do a national search,” Kessler said.

“I want this mining safety to be the foremost thing we do,” the governor said.

Conaway, a veteran of more than 20 years with the office and acting director since 2001, has told Manchin he’ll be glad to help out in the transition. Conaway holds master’s degrees in safety management and occupation safety and health engineering.

Lara Ramsburg, Manchin’s communications chief, noted Conaway’s two advanced degrees dealing with safety and said Manchin wants to find a replacement with at least one advanced degree. “That’s a component he wanted added,” she said.

The Senate, however, added only five years of education or training to the qualifications.

Dean has a master’s degree in mine engineering and has done some work toward obtaining a doctorate.

Manchin has plans for additional mine safety legislation. “We need to move to the next level,” the governor said.

Following the Senate’s passage of the bill by a 29-3 vote it goes to the House of Delegates, which is expected to suspend rules today and pass the legislation.

The Senate was late starting Tuesday while Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, explained to Republican senators what the bill does and asked them to vote to suspend the rules.

With 13 GOP senators, Democrats need some of their votes in order to reach the four-fifths majority required to suspend rules.

Only Sen. Russ Weeks, R-Raleigh, objected, making that vote 31-1.

He also opposed the bill, calling it a “very important piece of legislation” and that he prefers to have a person with underground mining experience. “I think I would rather have somebody looking out for me who has the experience,” Weeks said.

Manchin said there are a number of MHST employees with underground mining experience, so he does not believe that will create a problem.

Weeks told colleagues he “would like to slow this [bill] down,” but his plea went unheeded.

Only Weeks and Sens. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, and Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming, voted against the bill.

To contact staff writer Tom Searls, use e-mail or call 348-5192.


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