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W.Va. House speaker concerned about mine safety inaction

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Speaker Rick Thompson said Monday he is concerned about a lack of progress by the Tomblin administration toward implementing the state's new mine safety law.

"I'm particularly concerned about the rock-dusting requirements and the rules on methane monitors," Thompson said. "We're not on the enforcement side of things at the Legislature, but when we pass a law, we expect it to be enforced."

Thompson, D-Wayne, met last week and again Monday with state mine safety officials and representatives of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, following Gazette reports about the state's failure to enforce key provisions of the bill passed last year in response to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

"We're going to stay on top of it and make sure they enforce the law," said Thompson, whose father died in a mining accident. "We're going to keep looking at the bill that we passed."

Despite a legislative mandate to do so by October, the state Board of Coal Mine Health Safety has yet to issue a rule to require tougher requirements for the automatic shutdown of underground mining equipment when explosive methane gas is detected.

Also, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has yet to cite or fine any mine operators, despite finding hundreds of violations of new standards for applying crushed limestone, or "rock dust," to control the buildup of explosive coal dust underground.

Stronger rules to control methane and coal dust were key provisions of the state's response to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. Investigators concluded the disaster involved a small methane ignition that sparked a giant explosion fueled by large deposits of coal dust Massey had been allowing to accumulate underground.

It's not clear what action -- if any -- lawmakers will take to try to force faster implementation of the legislation.

Thompson, for example, would not specifically say whether he believes the state should start citing mine operators for inadequate rock-dusting of their mines.

Thompson said he was told the state is currently "enforcing" the rock-dust standards by calling mine operators to alert them to non-compliant rock-dust samples, and then returning to problem mines to see if things have improved. No formal citations are being issued and monetary fines are not being assessed, state officials have said.

Asked several times if current practices are adequate, Thompson said, "I expect them to enforce the law."

Generally, state law says, "it is the duty" of mine safety inspectors "to note each violation he or she finds and issue a finding, order or notice, as appropriate for each violation." State law also generally requires a penalty to be assessed for violations of any health or safety rules.

After last year's legislation was approved, the state mine safety office proposed a rule to specifically mandate notices of violation for any non-compliant rock-dust samples. The agency withdrew that rule after complaints from the mining industry, and no new rule has yet been proposed. In the meantime, agency officials are not issuing citations or assessing fines for rock-dust violations.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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