By Lee Buchsbaum, associate editor & photographer

Almost two years after the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine explosion, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed new comprehensive legislation that will continue to improve mine safety throughout the state. The new law establishes drug testing requirements, revises the process for developing ventilation plans, establishes the requirements for methane monitoring and rock dusting, and changes several safety-related miner training requirements.

Among the provisions included in House Bill 4351 are legislation:

  • Making it a felony, punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 and up to five years in prison, to provide advance notice of an unannounced mine inspection;
  • Putting into state law an ongoing mine safety hotline;
  • Requiring mine supervisors to review and sign off on daily mine operating reports at least once every two weeks;
  • Toughens methane standards and rock dusting requirements in underground mines in an attempt to reduce the chances of an explosion;
  • Increases the average penalty for underground violations from $3,000 to $5,000;
  • Setting new requirements for detecting and responding to excess methane in mines, including requiring withdrawing all individuals from areas with 1.5% methane concentrations;
  • Allow surviving family members to have representation of their choice on mine fatality investigations; and
  • Requiring pre-employment and random drug testing.

The bill passed 95-0 in the West Virginia House of Delegates and 34-0 in the Senate. “Making our coal mines safer was one of my top priorities for this legislative session,” Tomblin said. “I worked tirelessly with the legislature to pass wide-ranging mine safety reforms. Our state legislature just unanimously passed a comprehensive mine safety bill. Special thanks to both Speaker Thompson and President Kessler for their dedication to creating safer mines in the Mountain State.”

Does the Bill Go Too Far or Not Far Enough?
It took West Virginia two years to address the tragedy legislatively. The Mountain State’s coal industry has been besieged with federal regulators and it endured a change in gubernatorial leadership following the late Senator Byrd’s passing. This contrasts with swifter decision-making in 2006 when lawmakers quickly passed sweeping mine rescue legislation following fires and explosions at Sago and Aracoma. Despite numerous equipment purchases and high profile media events, up until this new legislation, West Virginia lawmakers had not reacted to the UBB incident with a new body of law. This new bill has been touted as that response.

While there is no doubt the new law will increase mine safety in the state, several of the provisions of the bill have garnered a lot of criticism for not going far enough or for simply repeating provisions and statutes already mandated by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and other federal agencies.

Drug testing, which is a center piece of the legislation and was extremely controversial, is not really the issue. At no point has drug use or abuse been cited as a factor that led to the UBB explosion. In all 29 autopsy reports, the only drug detected inside any of the deceased miners was a cold medicine. And throughout the industry, virtually every coal operators and contractor already adheres to drug and alcohol standards.

Under the new law, producers are mandated to conduct testing during inspections and investigations. Prior to hire, re-hire or transfer, mine operators have to test all miner applicants, no matter what job they are seeking. And if an applicant fails those tests, the producer is now required to notify the director of the Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training.

Another new but only slightly different provision is the mine safety hotline. Several years ago, former West Virginia Gov. Manchin created a new phone hotline following mine disasters at Aracoma and Sago in 2006. That hotline still exists and is in service.

The bill does create tougher state standards for the use and disbursement of rock dust, which is used to help render the explosive nature of coal dust inert. But, MSHA has already implemented similar standards that clearly go further.

The bill will require more accountability from top mine managers by demanding that mine superintendents