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West Virginia would require coal operators to tamp down further on methane gas and coal dust levels as part of the mine safety bill from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin this session.
Tomblin's proposal would also follow the lead of neighboring Kentucky and Virginia by mandating drug testing for miners. It also seeks to ensure that would-be whistleblowers can contact state officials anonymously, and calls for reviews of available training for miners and inspectors.
The House of Delegates received its version of the bill Tuesday, while the Senate version debuted Monday.
Several of the provisions respond to the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. In the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades, 29 miners died after explosive methane gas and coal dust built up in the underground mine.
Then-Gov. Joe Manchin commissioned J. Davitt McAteer to investigate Upper Big Branch. The head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, McAteer said he's been asked to review both Tomblin's bill and a mine safety proposal introduced earlier this session by House Speaker Richard Thompson and others.
McAteer is scheduled to discuss both bills during a Feb. 7 meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. McAteer said Tuesday that hopes to explain that any meaningful mine safety proposal must address the issue of responsibility.
His investigative report faulted Upper Big Branch's then-owner, Massey Energy Co., for allowing the conditions that led to the blast. Besides the deadly methane and coal dust buildup, worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers failed to stop a mere flare-up from becoming an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels and killed the 29 men instantly.
Later reports from MSHA and the United Mine Workers union reach the same conclusions. McAteer said the concept of supervisory accountability, recently adopted in neighboring Pennsylvania, holds responsible "the people who make the decisions about how the mine is to be operated, and how much money is to be spent on safety and how much money is to be spent on production," McAteer said.
While he said he continues to review Tomblin's bill, McAteer praised its provision increasing the amount of inert rock dust that must be scattered in mines to dampen the explosive potential of coal dust. But he also called it "absolutely absurd" that no machine has yet appeared that can spread rock dust in the confines of a mine's working area. Miners must now follow behind the mining machines, scattering rock dust by hand.
"We ought to be rock dusting as we're mining," McAteer said. "Right now, we're rock-dusting as we're doing maintenance."
Tomblin's bill would also require special methane monitors on longwall mining machines that would cut power to a coal-cutting tool if the amount of that gas reaches a certain level. While McAteer had yet to assess that provision, he said existing technology would allow the state to beyond that standard.
"We ought to be using this technology on every sort of mining equipment in any section of the mine where there is gas and dust," he said.
The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety helped develop that proposal, which is also found in the bill co-sponsored by Thompson, and the board would gradually phase in this requirement. The industry supports that approach, said Chris Hamilton, a senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Hamilton said the association was part of a working group consulted by Tomblin administration officials as they drafted the bill. The group also included safety professionals, the UMWA and other elected officials.
"I don't think there's anything in the bill that major objections have been directed toward, at least from industry's perspective," Hamilton said.
That would include a drug testing mandate. While operators don't want the state-run screening to conflict with their own programs, Hamilton said it should help because not all companies test their miners.
Hamilton also said that Kentucky and Virginia have suspended a total of 2,000 miners for failing the states' drug screenings. At least some of those miners are also likely certified in West Virginia, and so could end up working here, he said.
"A number of companies have instituted mandatory drug testing programs over the past few years," Hamilton said. "Not all companies have followed those progressive steps. There's some inconsistency within the industry at the current time."
McAteer said screenings should be done in an equitable way, so that managers and superintendents are also screened. He said that the UMWA has opposed mandatory testing as an invasion of privacy.
"The question is, what is the testing for?" McAteer said. "Is it done in a way that addresses mine safety?"