Several of the provisions respond to the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced a proposal that would require coal operators to tamp down further on methane gas and coal dust levels as part of a mine safety bill. The proposal would also follow the lead of neighboring Kentucky and Virginia by mandating drug testing for miners as well as giving would-be whistleblowers the ability to contact state officials anonymously. The proposal also calls for reviews of available training for miners and inspectors, the Associated Press reported.
Then-Gov. Joe Manchin commissioned J. Davitt McAteer to investigate the Upper Big Branch explosion. The head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, McAteer said he’s been asked to review both Tomblin's bill and a mine safety proposal introduced earlier this session by House Speaker Richard Thompson and others.
McAteer’s investigative report faulted Upper Big Branch’s then-owner, Massey Energy Co., for allowing the conditions that led to the blast. Besides the deadly methane and coal dust buildup, worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers failed to stop a mere flare-up from becoming an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels and killed the 29 men instantly.
Later reports from MSHA and the United Mine Workers union reached the same conclusions. McAteer said the concept of supervisory accountability, recently adopted in neighboring Pennsylvania, holds responsible “the people who make the decisions about how the mine is to be operated, and how much money is to be spent on safety and how much money is to be spent on production,” McAteer said.
McAteer praised the provision in Tomblin’s bill that calls for increasing the amount of inert rock dust that must be scattered in mines to dampen the explosive potential of coal dust. But he also called it "absolutely absurd" that no machine has yet appeared that can spread rock dust in the confines of a mine's working area. Miners must now follow behind the mining machines, scattering rock dust by hand.
Tomblin’s bill would also require special methane monitors on longwall mining machines that would cut power to a coal-cutting tool if the amount of that gas reaches a certain level.
The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety helped develop that proposal, which is also found in the bill co-sponsored by Thompson, and the board would gradually phase in this requirement. The industry supports that approach, Chris Hamilton, a senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association told the Associated Press.
Hamilton said the association was part of a working group consulted by Tomblin administration officials as they drafted the bill. The group also included safety professionals, the UMWA and other elected officials.