Mine safety assets strained
West Virginia’s string of fatal coal-mining accidents is starting to strain the resources of the small state agency charged with keeping miners safe and healthy, officials say.
Before last week, the Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training already was faced with investigating the worst West Virginia mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
It also had to search for the cause of the Jan. 19 fire that killed two Logan County miners.
Then last Wednesday, two more miners died in separate accidents in Boone County.
Gov. Joe Manchin asked operators to conduct special safety talks before each shift, and ordered state inspectors to perform a massive sweep of every mine site in the state.
“We’ve never been stretched or taxed this thin in my 20 years here,” agency Director Doug Conaway said during an interview last week.
Administration officials say they are doing everything they can to help Conaway’s agency. Manchin has said he has given the agency authority to hire a full-time lawyer, something mine safety officials did not have before.
Also, a public relations staffer from the Division of Tourism — another branch of the West Virginia Department of Commerce — has been working to help mine safety officials handle their deluge of media calls from around the country.
On Friday, Manchin said he will consider funneling more money and other resources, but is waiting for a report from Conaway on what the agency needs.
Manchin repeated that his goal is for West Virginia’s coal industry to be the safest in the country.
“I want all of our mines to be inspected, and if there are any violations, I want them fixed,” the governor said in an interview.
Mine safety officials say that they are shocked and distressed by this year’s state death toll, especially because it follows a record low of three mining deaths in 2005. This year’s 16 deaths through Friday are the most in any year since 1995, when there also were 16 fatalities, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.
So far, state officials say they can’t explain the accidents and are not sure if they indicate systemic problems, such as safety violations by mine operators.
“We’re going to find in some of these instances that there may be some noncompliance,” Conaway said. “But I’m in the middle of four investigations, and I don’t have enough information to say if noncompliance was a main factor.”
In West Virginia, like many other mining states, safety is regulated by state and federal agencies. MSHA enforces federal mine safety laws, and Conaway’s office enforces state regulations. Unlike with environmental enforcement concerning mining — where state regulators take charge of enforcing federal strip-mine rules — the jurisdictions are separate.
Conaway’s agency operates out of a small suite of offices on Charleston’s East End, a couple of blocks from the Capitol. The mine safety agency has about 75 inspectors in Charleston and at regional offices in Fairmont, Welch, Danville and Oak Hill.
By comparison, the state Department of Environmental Protection has a staff of about 115 inspectors to monitor environmental problems at the state’s strip mines.
Over the past decade, the mine safety office’s budget has increased by more than 30 percent, just enough to keep pace with inflation. Last month, Manchin proposed a slight increase, about 2 percent, to $6.01 million in general revenue money for the agency for the 2007 financial year, which starts July 1.
Mine safety officials also receive about $1.3 million in federal money and another $1.9 million in special revenue funds, according to state budget documents.
Manchin’s predecessor as governor, Bob Wise, took several steps to beef up West Virginia’s mine safety efforts. Wise gave the state agency new authority to force coal contractors — a dangerous subset of the state’s mining work force — to report accident and injury information to regulators.
Conaway said the new authority helps, but also is an additional duty that takes a lot of resources.
“One of the things that’s really increased for us is the independent-contractor activity,” he said.
On any given day, there are about 12,000 contract workers in West Virginia mines, almost as many as the full-time miners employed by companies, Conaway said.
Wise also increased the agency’s ability to assess larger monetary penalties for more serious mine safety violations.
“There are cases where we see a high degree of negligence or serious disregard, and we need to have that ability,” Conaway said.
As a result, fines assessed by the state have nearly doubled in the past three years, to about $1.3 million, according to state records. The number of fines issued has risen by about 60 percent, to nearly 3,300. But the average fine has increased by about 27 percent, to about $400, agency records show.
Manchin has ordered agency officials to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of state mine health and safety regulations to ensure they are adequate. He also wants to make sure fines for violations are sufficient to deter repeat problems, the governor said.
The governor repeated Friday that he wants to ban the use of conveyor-belt tunnels as fresh-air intakes in underground coal mines — a practice he believes helped spread the Jan. 19 fire that killed two workers at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.
Since 1969, the practice generally has been against federal law. But the Bush administration wrote a new federal regulation in 2004 to allow it on a widespread basis.
“How did the belt double as a fresh-air entry?” Manchin said. “It doesn’t even make sense.”
He said that rule is “the most glaring example” of mine safety regulations that need to be changed.
“How many more do we have like that? I don’t know, but we have to find out,” the governor said.
Last week, Manchin announced that Huntington lawyer Menis E. Ketchum had agreed to serve as a “volunteer legal adviser” to the state mine safety office. Ketchum will help the agency review its mine safety rules and implement the mine rescue legislation Manchin already pushed through the Legislature.
Ketchum, chairman of the Marshall University Board of Governors, has a general law practice. He served on Manchin’s transition team, after being a campaign manager for Lloyd Jackson in Cabell and Wayne counties during the 2004 primary election.