Independent investigator Davitt McAteer, right, talks with United Mine Workers safety director Dennis O'Dell prior to Tuesday's legislative hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
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.
McAteer noted that, in 2006, lawmakers passed landmark mine rescue legislation before the end of January, the month when 14 miners died in separate accidents at the Sago Mine in Upshur County and the Aracoma Mine in Logan County.
It's been nearly two years since Upper Big Branch, McAteer said. The state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training has still not issued its report on Upper Big Branch, and lawmakers have not moved to pass any mine safety reforms.
McAteer recommended that lawmakers pass legislation to require mine operators to use state-of-the-art coal-dust "explosibility" meters and force companies to install real-time ventilation monitors to keep track of fresh-air flow underground.
Such equipment is commercially available, McAteer said, but is not widely used by the industry.
Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June 2011, is adopting such technology as part of a deal with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to avoid any corporate criminal charges related to the disaster. Other companies have not stepped forward to match Alpha's actions.
"Some of our friends in the industry are not keen on having that kind of data available following an accident," McAteer told lawmakers. "You should be as a Legislature. You should be keen on having that knowledge so we can convert it into prevention."
McAteer also called on lawmakers to get out ahead of the federal government and implement a tight limit on the legal level of coal dust in underground mines, a measure he said would help prevent black lung disease. He noted that his investigation found nearly three-quarters of the Upper Big Branch miners had black lung disease, while the only sign of drug use by the miners was one autopsy that found cough medicine.
"[The drug testing proposal] is a distraction," McAteer said. "It is not involved in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. That's our finding. No one has disputed it."
McAteer lamented that the findings at Upper Big Branch were so similar to the causes of the Monongah Mine Disaster in 1907, which killed several hundred workers, and that West Virginia continues to rank among the worst states in most mine safety statistics.
"We in this state continue to lead this nation or nearly lead this nation in the number of mining fatalities," McAteer said. "We can fix that, and we need to fix that."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.