Senator pulls WV mine safety bill, says compromise measure coming

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker

A bill that would eliminate almost all coal-mine safety enforcement by West Virginia inspectors has been pulled and alternative legislation — billed as a compromise between industry and labor — will be made public later this week, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining said Tuesday.

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal Co. official, said he’s been meeting privately with the United Mine Workers union, the West Virginia Coal Association and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to come up with a deal.

“We’re coming to an agreement and we’re going to be able to run something out by Thursday,” Smith said in an interview at the Capitol. “It’s a good bill.”

Smith said he didn’t have all of the details available yet but that the new bill will not contain language like the provisions of his Senate Bill 582, which would have prevented state inspectors from issuing citations or levying fines unless they could prove a hazard posed “imminent danger” of death or serious injury.

“582 was never going to come out, in its present form,” Smith said.

Smith said he introduced legislation with that language “to get people’s attention” and force various sides to the negotiating table on a mine safety bill.

“Sometimes, you have to do stuff like that to get people’s attention, to get them to meet,” Smith said. “It seems like nobody wants to address anything unless there’s a disaster. So I basically created my own disaster, put my own neck on the chopping block. The only way you guys will cover anything is if we can make it look gloom and doom. So that’s what I did. It got everybody’s attention and brought everybody to the table, and we were able to work out a good bill.”

Last week, Smith sent SB 582 to a subcommittee, but the subcommittee never met and, on Tuesday, Smith answered questions about the bill following an Energy, Industry and Mining Committee meeting where the bill wasn’t discussed.

Smith’s original bill drew national attention and, along with a measure in Kentucky to reduce that state’s mine safety enforcement, was condemned Monday in a New York Times editorial. Speaking during a Capitol rally Tuesday morning for the oil and gas industry, Smith appeared to refer to the news media attention on the safety bill, saying, “Don’t believe everything you read about me.”

Smith is employed as a safety manager for Mettiki Coal. Officials from Mettiki’s parent corporation, Alliance Resource Partners, were major contributors to Smith’s campaign. Alliance bills itself as the second-largest Eastern U.S. coal producer. Its Mettiki arm operates a large underground mine in Tucker County.

Smith said his new bill will include some rules to “stiffen” areas of state safety regulations, specifically related to first aid requirements at mine sites. There will be no language to reduce the authority of the state mine safety office, he said.

“It’s not going to take any power away from the agency,” Smith said. “We’re not trying to deregulate. We’re just trying to get everybody on the same page.”

Smith said the only safety standards that might be removed through the bill are outdated ones that refer to practices or equipment no longer used in modern mining activities.

“It’s a cleanup bill on some issues,” Smith said.

Smith said negotiations are still ongoing about whether the new bill will combine any of the state’s various mine safety boards. He also said that, separate from the legislative effort, state mine safety officials will examine West Virginia rules, to determine areas where they are duplicative of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration standards.

Smith said there also will be some changes to the environmental provisions in the bill. The original SB 582 would have rewritten the state’s program for holding mine operators responsible for cleaning up abandoned strip mines and the rules for properly classifying streams that are trout waters.

A committee lawyer had said the plan was to add language to it that would rewrite language in the water quality standards that has been used by citizen groups to win federal court orders to reduce water pollution from mountaintop removal mine sites.

Smith said the new bill will not include language to eliminate the Department of Environmental Protection’s environmental advocate office. Smith said he met with DEP Secretary Austin Caperton and was convinced the position should not be abolished.

Last year, the UMW agreed to a bill that weakened several mine safety protections, to avoid industry-pushed legislation that the union viewed as even worse. In 2015, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed legislation that weakened mine safety protections, despite a union call for a veto of that bill.

Smith was a lead sponsor of the 2016 bill and of the House version of the 2015 bill.

In 2012, Tomblin’s legislative response to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster — where drug use by miners was not an issue — was a bill that focused on drug testing the state’s coal miners. Tomblin’s legislation also called for a report that examined ways to improve the mine safety program. That report was published in 2013, but lawmakers have never fully implemented its recommendations.

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

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