During the Sago disaster, Tomblin was president of the West Virginia Senate. “When we returned to Charleston, I spent almost the entire legislature working on new laws and guidelines that responded as quickly as possible to what we learned about what was needed in terms of safety for our miners. We began implementing laws requiring handheld lifelines as well as working on regulations that used new technologies to monitor where our miners are in the mines,” said Tomblin.
“Since Sago and now Upper Big Branch, we have become even more ambitious. We are always searching for and developing new technologies that help keep our miners safe. The new safety vehicle will help us locate those miners. It will help us see into the mines and provide feedback from a mile under the ground. It will also help us take air samples on the spot instead of having to send those samples back to Charleston for lab analysis. We’re also working on better GPS satellite monitoring as well as computer generated 3-D mine maps that will help us be better prepared as to where miners might be in the case of a disaster. We’ll be able to translate that data to see where we might have to dig a shaft or bore hole in a rescue situation, how close we’ll be to a rescue shelter,” said Tomblin.
In turn, said the governor, those regulations have helped generate jobs similar to those created by Mine Lifeline in his hometown of Chapmanville in Logan County. “Rick Abraham and his group have taken something as simple as plastic wrapped wire and put certain symbols on it that let a miner know where they are going directionally. They know that if they can reach up and follow that line, they can find their way to safety. That’s an important tool and we’ve helped both secure jobs and create new ones,” said Tomblin.
As the second most productive coal state in the nation, West Virginia’s main industry seems under attack from seemingly all sides. In early March, the Corps of Engineers with EPA approval finally issued a very rare surface mining permit, this time for Massey Energy, only a few days later that permit issuance was stayed by Federal Judge Chambers.
A visibly frustrated Tomblin, when asked about these seemingly intractable differences, lamented on how “tough” the regulatory scenario has become. “Mining is an ongoing process. It’s not something like the DMV where you get your license and drive away the same day. There’s a lot of planning. It takes a lot of time to raise capital and so forth. Once an operation’s there and in place, as it starts to mine its way through its reserves, to stay in business, they need to know what’s going to happen tomorrow, what’s going to happen next year and two years down the road. West Virginia coal producers are at a disadvantage by not knowing what the EPA is going to do. The not knowing puts a lot of stress on coal mining families as well. They don’t know, like the companies they work for, if six, eight or 18 months out if they’re going to have a job. That’s the uncertainty I hope will end as we resolve some of these issues,” Tomblin said.
Earlier in the year, Tomblin felt encouraged when the EPA finally issued several permits that had previously been held up as they went through the aggressive agency’s nebulous enhanced review process. Terming this period as a kind of industry-wide “reformation,” Tomblin hopes that daylight should be there for some operators. “The smaller 2,000-acre or so permits, those are the kind of projects that should be easier to move through. It shouldn’t be such a hit and miss process. What we have now is really causing hardships.”
In response to their intransigence, the State of West Virginia under then Governor Joe Manchin (now U.S. Senator) has filed suit against the EPA over Washington’s imposition of its water quality narratives on individual states. This would be a violation of the statues in the Clean Water Act which allow each state to determine its own guidelines. “This strategy relates back to Arch Coal’s Spruce Fork mine, which when its