House passes mine safety bill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Following emotional speeches by Delegates Charlene Marshall, D-Monongalia, Mike Caputo, D-Marion - and in a rare floor address - Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, the House of Delegates Tuesday passed the governor's mine safety legislation 95-0 (HB4351).
The bill goes to the Senate, where Senate leadership has signed off on changes the House made to the bill.
Both Marshall, whose father and stepfather were killed in the mines, and Thompson, whose father died in a mine accident in 1952, cited a provision in the bill that would allow surviving family members to have a representative on panels investigating mine fatalities.
"We never had that possibility," said Marshall, who said she was outraged when coal industry lobbyists held up the bill last week, in part, in an effort to remove that provision.
"I thought that was just terrible, one of the worst things I've heard of," she said of her concerns.
Likewise, Thompson said that for many years, all he knew about his father's death was stories the family told, and a newspaper brief about the accident, headlined, "Thompson killed in mine mishap."
"In 1952, these were called mishaps, and buried in the newspaper," Thompson said. "Thank God that's changed."
It was the first time in six years as House speaker that Thompson relinquished the podium to give a floor speech.
At one point, he paused to regain his composure, while describing how his mother was left a widow at age 17, with one child to care for and another, himself, on the way.
"I insist today that this not be the last step in protecting our coal miners," he told the House.
Thompson had been the lead sponsor of mine safety legislation regarded as tougher than the governor's bill (HB4085). However, at least two key provisions of that bill were incorporated into the governor's bill, including having family representation on investigative panels.
Another provision adopted would require ranking mine supervisors to review and sign off on daily mine safety reports at least once every two weeks.
Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the provision is intended to hold higher-ups in mining companies accountable if they permit unsafe practices to persist.
"Too often, from what I've learned, mine foremen are made the scapegoats," Miley said.
Caputo suggested that was the case with Massey Energy.
"This wasn't just bad business practices, this was akin to organized crime and it should be treated as such," he said of the corporate culture that contributed to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010.
Delegate Greg Butcher, D-Logan, also cited that disaster while discussing tougher whistleblower protections in the bill, including an anonymous state tip-line to report mine safety violations.
"I think these 29 miners might have been intimidated to death," he said. "They knew it was an unsafe mine."
Caputo noted that from the first mine safety law passed in Congress in 1892, to the current bill, all mine safety legislation passed by Congress or the Legislature has been in reaction to mine disasters.
"We're doing a bill because people died. That is the only time we pass meaningful legislation against this industry," he said.
Caputo, an international representative for the United Mine Workers, said at one point during negotiations, Thompson asked him if the current version of the bill would save lives.
Caputo's response: "Mr. Speaker, I believe it will."
He noted, "There are some in the press who've been critical of what we're doing...I want the press to let the world know we need to keep vigilant on the issue of mine safety."
Also Tuesday, the House passed and sent to the Senate bills to:
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, spoke against the bill, noting that magistrates in those counties will have had a total of $27,000 of raises in the past nine years. Those raises alone nearly equal the average per capita income in the state, he said.
Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said the intent of the bill is not only to keep those graduates in West Virginia, but also to encourage students to pursue degrees in those high-demand majors.
The bill is projected to cost the state $4 million to $6 million a year in reduced personal income tax collections.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.