CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mandatory drug testing for coal miners is the cornerstone of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's legislative response to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, but drug use has not been found to have played a role in the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, West Virginia lawmakers were told Monday.
Eugene White, acting deputy director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said his agency has not discovered any evidence that drug use contributed to the deaths at the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County.
White testified Monday in the first of a two-day informational session for lawmakers who are considering Tomblin's bill and a rival proposal by Democratic leaders in the House.
"Not that I am aware of, sir," White told lawmakers when asked if there were any connections between drug use and the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
White's agency has not yet released a formal report on its disaster investigation, but three other reports -- by independent investigator Davitt McAteer, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the United Mine Workers -- made no mention of drug use as a contributing factor. The state's report is expected to be released later this month.
McAteer is to appear before lawmakers today, along with UMW safety director Dennis O'Dell. Along with White, Monday's hearing included testimony from Joel Watts, administrator of the state mine safety board, and Chris Hamilton, lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association.
Tomblin has proposed mandatory drug testing for miners as part of his mine safety legislation, and the coal industry is pushing the idea, which it has long championed.
The House leadership's bill does not include drug testing. Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a UMW representative, noted that most major coal companies -- especially large unionized ones -- already have their own employee drug testing programs.
State mine safety officials say their agency is already stretched thin, despite an infusion of state money that increased the number of inspectors from 96 at this time last year to 116 as of last month. And White said additional duties to either do drug testing itself or oversee operator programs would make things even tougher.