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 permit was rescinded, had been fully permitted. It is our belief the federal government is infringing on some of the rights of our state. Along with the National Mining Association and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, who are also challenging the EPA, we believe we can prevail. We also believe the change in the attitude of the House of Representatives may help our cause,” said Tomblin.
As the first West Virginia governor in decades to hail from the southern part of the state, Tomblin brings with him a keen perspective of how important the coal industry is to his state. “When I was a kid growing up it seemed like there was coal and then there was everything else. Going back into the 1960s, the union was very strong, there were wildcat strikes. Operators and workers alike had little notice as to when things would be shut down. You had families that never knew about the security of their paychecks,” said Tomblin.
When he graduated from high school, a young man went from his desk to his job in the mines, said Tomblin. “That was just where almost everyone started their careers. But of course the coal industry and the way coal miners perform their jobs has changed tremendously. Today’s coal miner receives much more training and their jobs are much better paying. Today, almost 50 years later, we still have our coalfield towns, but West Virginia now has a much more diversified economy. If you go a few miles to the south of Charleston, however, many or most towns still really have only the one coal based economy. And that’s the economy that is most threatened by the EPA’s current stance and is most affected by the anti-coal forces,” Tomblin said.
Though the nation continues to work its way out of a deep economic chasm, ironically environmentalists in Washington and elsewhere are retarding West Virginia’s ability to stay financially healthy. “One of the things I’m very proud of as governor of the state is our financial situation. We’ve had surpluses for the last eight or nine years in West Virginia when I was in the Senate. Throughout this period, we have been able to use those surpluses for a wide variety of measures that have largely fostered the continuation and expansion of jobs in West Virginia. We are also proving the coal industry can be truly environmentally friendly. Either way, the price of coal and energy in this country has helped our state and the nation tremendously,” said Tomblin.
Addressing the relative lack of a middle ground in this struggle, Tomblin spoke of the need for folks outside of West Virginia and Appalachia to reconsider their judgments on mountaintop mining. “The weak end in West Virginia is that we have not been using the post-mined land as well as we should. Once our mining companies have created this land, it becomes very level ground that could be used for the expansion of our communities. Also, we’ve had widespread flooding over the past few years. It’s become rather common to have one to three floods a year. My thoughts are that rather than trying to go back to 1970s, instead of going back to AOC [Approximate Original Contour] laws, what we need to do is use that flat land wherever possible. With all new infrastructure in place, we can use it to bring in industry and new establish residential sites outside where the floodwaters could reach them. Throughout the state, we’re now building schools, hospitals, airports and subdivisions on post-mined land. I think we have a lot of sites that can become potential engines of growth. We need to review the federal regulations that deal with how we can use that land. We now have so many kinds of sites with good highway and road access and other good qualities. It would be much more beneficial to this State if we could use that land for redevelopment instead of attempting to put it back to how it was prior to mining taking place,” said Tomblin.
Looking ahead, the governor sees growing worldwide opportunities for his state’s sought after coal. “I think the merger between Alpha and Massey will be a good marriage for us. Massey has some of the best reserves in West Virginia. Alpha is an impressive company with an excellent and sound environmental record. They do a great job and I think it will be an excellent fit. West Virginia’s highly valuable and increasingly rare metallurgical reserves are finding homes all around the world. But that’s only one of our natural resources,” he said.
Governor Tomblin has also championed efforts to expand coal’s markets through new technologies. “We’re working now to help create a new coal to liquids facility in southern West Virginia. The facility is now permitted and hopefully we’ll see groundbreaking before July 1 of this year. As a nation, we’re looking for alternate ways to produce energy domestically. Though we’ll continue to rely on coal for many decades to come, finding and developing other ways to use that coal is key. West Virginia will continue to be a leader in coal technology as well as safety and post-mine land use development,” said Tomblin.