Coal lobby bill removes longstanding safety protections

On July 1, 2010, electrician Wilbert “Ray” Starcher was killed when he was run over by a shuttle car deep inside White Buck Coal Co.’s Pocahontas Mine, in Greenbrier County.

A co-worker driving the shuttle car couldn’t see Starcher because metal sideboards, which had been added to the shuttle car, blocked the driver’s view.

State investigators cited White Buck with violating a West Virginia law that prohibits altering shuttle cars with sideboards that “inhibit the view of the operator.”

This year, a proposal to weaken that law is part of the West Virginia Coal Association’s top legislative initiative. Industry lobbyists say their “Coal Jobs and Safety Act” would help make West Virginia more competitive.

The proposal, which is making its way through the House (HB 2566) and the Senate (SB 357), would give coal operators a shield against citizen lawsuits over Clean Water Act violations and a long-sought change in the state’s pollution limit for aluminum.

The bill also would remove several longstanding safety protections for West Virginia’s coal miners. It would eliminate a labor-industry panel that reviews underground diesel equipment to ensure that miners are safe from toxic fumes. It would push back, from 500 feet to 1,500 feet, the maximum distances work areas can be from tracks that miners might have to use to escape in an emergency. It would remove language that ensures workers are kept in safe locations during potentially dangerous moves of mining equipment from one work area to another.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, has told lawmakers that his group is proud of West Virginia’s “achievements” in mine safety and would never recommend legislation that would “lessen protections for our miners.”

However, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, has come out strongly against the bill

“As long as miners continue to die in West Virginia’s mines,” he said last week, “we need to be looking for ways to strengthen health and safety protections — not gut them.”

UMW officials have focused on the bill’s language concerning equipment moves. West Virginia law governing underground coal mines states that, “when equipment is being transported or trammed, no person shall be permitted” farther inside the area of the mine than the equipment that is being moved. The language has been in place for more than 40 years.

Last week, during a House Industry and Labor Committee meeting, Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a UMW official, reminded lawmakers about the Blacksville No. 1 Mine disaster.

On July 22, 1972, a fire at the Consolidation Coal Co. operation in Monongalia County killed nine miners. The fire occurred during the movement of a continuous mining machine from one work location to another, when the machine came into contact with a “trolley wire,” an energized bare electrical wire suspended from the mine roof. A foreman and nine miners were located farther inside the mine — known as “inby” — and died in the fire.

The coal industry’s legislative proposal would eliminate the prohibition on working inby equipment moves in underground mines.

At Caputo’s insistence, the House Industry and Labor panel removed from the bill changes to the law regarding equipment moves.

In the current Senate bill, lawmakers added language aimed at providing some protection where equipment being moved might come into contact with dangerous trolley wire. However, the existing state prohibition against working inby during an equipment move is broader than just those situations where trolley wire presents a hazard. And this year’s legislative debate is far from the first time the UMW has tussled with the industry over the issue.

In 1978, government officials tried to read the prohibition to apply only in situations when trolley wire was present. Union officials, represented by crusading Charleston lawyer Dan Hedges, sued. The union argued that state law was clear, and prohibited workers inby all equipment moves, whether trolley wire was present or not. The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in the union’s favor.

“In this case we are not concerned with a mere point of law in routine civil litigation, but rather the lives and limbs of countless thousands of living, breathing, human beings who, along with their families, have suffered needless loss since time out of mine in an industry which appears inevitably to suck the life’s blood from the miner as he takes the coal from the earth,” then-Justice Richard Neely wrote for the court.

Sam Petsonk, a mine safety lawyer with Hedges’ nonprofit Mountain State Justice law firm, has been reviewing the coal industry’s legislation and is especially concerned about the changes proposed regarding the use of sideboards on shuttle cars, vehicles used for transferring coal from a loading or mining machine to an underground loading point, such as a mine railway or conveyor belt system.

West Virginia law states simply that shuttle cars “shall not be altered by the addition of sideboards so as to inhibit the view of the operator.” The law also says the use of equipment “which creates unsafe working conditions for the miner operating the equipment or others, is prohibited.”

The industry’s bill would add language that says “the addition of or use of sideboards on shuttle cars shall be permitted if the shuttle car is equipped with cameras” and that “shuttle cars with sideboards as manufactured by an equipment manufacturer shall be permitted to be used without the use of cameras.”

Petsonk noted that West Virginia regulators are phasing in a requirement that proximity detection systems — which shut off equipment when miners get too close — or cameras or comparable alternatives must be installed on underground equipment “because people were losing legs and being killed by machines when the machine didn’t have view-blocking sideboards.”

“Just as we begin to solve one problem by installing proximity detection and cameras to reduce the risk of haulage fatalities, this bill is going to threaten that progress and create another, potentially bigger problem,” Petsonk said.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed its version of the bill by a vote of 26-8, with half of the body’s 16 Democrats — Sens. Kirkendoll, Laird, Miller, Palumbo, Plymale, Stollings, Williams, and Woelfel — voting in favor of passage.

“I think the content of this bill was as perfect as it could be to give people a chance to get back to work,” said Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan.

Sen. Bob Beach, a Monongalia County Democrat who voted against the bill, recalled that his uncle, Justin Beach Jr., was one of the nine who died at Blacksville. “We don’t need to be in a position where we are moving backward on safety,” Beach said.

The House Judiciary Committee has the bill on its agenda for a meeting Friday morning.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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