CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposal to require drug testing for West Virginia's coal miners is "a distraction" from efforts to improve mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, a leading safety advocate and the United Mine Workers agreed Tuesday.
Independent investigator Davitt McAteer urged lawmakers to separate the drug-testing proposal from the safety bill and focus instead on requiring better mine ventilation monitors and toughening the state's limits on coal dust in underground operations.
Dennis O'Dell, safety director for the UMW, questions whether the drug-testing legislation was necessary, given that most of the state's major coal producers already have such programs for their workers.
"We're not druggies and we're not alcoholics," O'Dell told lawmakers during a statehouse hearing. "I don't think mine inspectors need to be drug and alcohol police to take them away from what their duties really are.
"It's only those operations that are not reputable that have no alcohol or drug policies in place, because they don't care. All they care about is production," O'Dell said. "Punish them. Don't punish the rest of us."
McAteer and O'Dell testified Tuesday, during the second of a two-day legislative informational session focused on competing mine safety bills proposed by Tomblin and House Speaker Rick Thompson.
The bill contains similar provisions regarding criminal penalties for advance notice of government mine inspections and automatic shutdown of mining equipment if explosive methane is present.
But the centerpiece of the governor's bill is its industry-backed drug-testing requirement, while the proposal from Thompson -- whose father died in a mining accident -- includes new protections for mine safety whistleblowers and gives the families of mine accident victims the right to participate in government investigations.
During Tuesday's hearing, O'Dell showed lawmakers a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration video animation that depicts what MSHA investigators believe led to the April 5, 2010, disaster that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.
In separate reports, MSHA, the UMW and McAteer all generally agreed that the Upper Big Branch disaster was caused by Massey Energy's systematic failure to follow safety rules governing mine ventilation and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust.
"This catastrophe could have been prevented," O'Dell said.