Tomblin signs industry-backed coal safety bill

On the last day for him to act on legislation passed this session, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Friday signed an industry-backed bill that weakens several of West Virginia’s mine safety requirements, but has been portrayed as a compromise between coal companies and organized labor.

Chris Stadelman, communications director for Tomblin, downplayed any potential negative impacts on mine safety from the legislation.

“The governor would not have signed it if he thought it put miners’ safety at risk,” Stadelman said.

The legislation relaxes the requirements for mine operators to provide private mine rescue teams, allowing them to instead rely on a state-funded team as a backup, a move that the impacts of which the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has not analyzed.

The bill (HB4726) also reduces the fines for not immediately reporting major mining incidents like fires and explosions to state officials.

It gives the industry increased ability to appeal safety violations in court and sends such appeals to local judges in communities where the mines are located, rather than to Kanawha Circuit Court, where most challenges of state agency actions are filed. The bill also lessens the requirement for periodic safety examinations of hoisting devices that are used to transport miners up and down mine shafts.

Also, the bill eliminates the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Explosives and Blasting, a separate office that was created within DEP in 1999 to ensure the agency emphasized responding to citizen complaints about strip-mine blasting at mountaintop removal operations in Southern West Virginia.

While blasting issues may not get as much attention as they used to, recent studies have linked dust from that blasting to increased risks of health problems among residents near large-scale mining sites. The legislation shifts the responsibility for enforcing blasting rules to the DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation.

In the House, the bill passed easily -- with only four votes against it on an initial vote and then six votes when a Senate-modified version returned for approval.

Senators approved the bill 30-4, with Senate Minority leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler speaking strongly against passage.

United Mine Workers union officials have said they agreed to the bill — and state mine safety officials said they have not opposed it — largely because they feared that without a compromise, the West Virginia Coal Association would push through the industry’s other bill, which union and state officials viewed as more drastic.

In a prepared statement, Stadelman said that Tomblin, “strongly believes that we should both keep our coal miners safe and provide opportunities to help our coal industry make it through difficult times. Representatives from both sides worked on House Bill 4726, and the governor appreciates their combined efforts to provide assistance to the state’s coal industry while also protecting safety.”

Over the last few years, coal operations in West Virginia have been shedding jobs in the face of tough competition from low-priced natural gas and from other coal regions, increased environmental regulations to address air pollution and climate change, a decline in prices and demand for steel-making coal exports, and the depletion of higher-quality reserves in Southern West Virginia.

Supporters of HB 4726 have not explained exactly how the changes the bill includes would make West Virginia’s coal mines safer, better protect the state environment or create more coal-mining jobs.

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

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