CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As he defends his proposal to require drug-testing for all West Virginia coal miners, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is pointing to two state mining deaths he blames on alcohol or drug abuse.
However, a review of official government reports on those two incidents show the causes were more complicated than the governor's statement suggests.
In one, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training didn't mention drug or alcohol use in its formal investigative report, but later tried to strip the license of a miner who was involved after he failed a drug test.
In the other, agency investigators blamed mine managers who they said had allowed the miner who was killed to work his shift after he'd been drinking.
The findings raise more questions about Tomblin's proposal, which already is under fire from the United Mine Workers union and an independent state investigator. Those critics argue that including the controversial drug-testing language in a bill meant to provide legislative follow-up to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster diverts attention from more important safety reforms.
"There were no alcohol or drugs involved in Upper Big Branch," said Dennis O'Dell, administrator for health and safety at the UMW. "I don't think mine inspectors need to be drug and alcohol police to take them away from what their duties really are."
O'Dell was among those who testified last week during a two-day legislative hearing on Tomblin's legislation and a rival mine-safety bill co-sponsored by House Speaker Rick Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat whose father died in a mining accident.
During Wednesday's testimony, longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer encouraged lawmakers to separate the drug-testing proposal from the rest of the governor's bill, and deal first with what he said were more urgent safety problems.
The next day, Tomblin appeared on statewide radio to defend his bill.
"We believe that the vast majority of our miners are drug and alcohol free," the governor said on the MetroNews "Talkline" show. "What we're wanting to do is make sure we do everything we can do to keep our miners safe."
The governor added, "There were at least two fatalities that I've been informed about that happened because of impaired workers out there."
Administration officials later confirmed that the governor was referring to the 2008 death of a miner at Consol Energy's McElroy Mine in Marshall County and the 2009 death of a contract reclamation worker at Patriot Coal's Samples Mine in Kanawha County.
In the McElroy incident, 58-year-old Victor Goudy was killed when he was pinned between two underground mining vehicles on Oct. 19, 2008.
William Coulson, a general inside laborer at the mine, was driving an underground locomotive that ran into another series of mine cars, which then crushed Goudy up against another locomotive. At the time, Goudy was kneeling down next to the mine cars.
State investigators blamed the incident on the lack of a "conspicuous light or approved reflector" on the back of the mine cars that Coulson ran into. Their eight-page report, released in February 2009, didn't mention alcohol or drugs. Consol had tested Coulson and found his blood contained hydrocodone, for which he had a prescription, and oxycodone, for which he did not, according to court records.
Before releasing their fatal-accident report, state investigators filed a separate action seeking to strip Coulson of his mining license. They argued, among other things, that Coulson violated existing state law prohibiting carrying "any intoxicants" into coal mines or working in the mines "while under the influence of intoxicants."
A report by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration did not mention drugs or alcohol or include their use as a "root cause" of the accident.
In the other incident Tomblin refers to, 28-year-old Mark Allen Gray was killed on July 28, 2009, when he ran his rock truck off a haul road and into a sediment pond while performing reclamation work for Hawkeye Contracting Co. LLC for Patriot Coal at the Samples Mine.