Legislation would cut state mine safety enforcement authority

March 15, 2017

 A bill that was introduced to the West Virginia Senate would eliminate most enforcement powers of state mine regulators.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that Senate Bill 582 would create wholesale changes to the way the state inspects coal mines. For example, the state would no longer conduct inspections, instead inspectors would conduct “compliance visits and education.” Those inspectors would also no longer issue citations or fines but operators would receive “compliance assistance visit notices” for violations that did not pose an imminent danger to miners.

Opponents of the bill have called it an attack on the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety and say that if it is passed it will roll back years of safety regulations implemented for the safety and health of miners.

Opponents have also raised concern about how the bill appears to encourage the use of “individual personal assessments,” which target specific mine employees — rather than mine operators or coal companies — for violations, fines and, possibly, revocation of certifications or licenses needed to work in the industry. In addition, the requirement for four inspections every year for each underground coal mine would be reduced to one compliance assistance visit for each of those mines.

Proponents of the bill, including the West Virginia Coal Association argue the bill will reduce the redundancy that comes from having state and federal inspectors. Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association told The Charleston Gazette-Mail that his organization feels federal inspectors spend plenty of time at West Virginia’s coal mines and that having state inspectors doing the same thing is duplicative.

The bill would require that, by Aug. 31, the state rewrite all of its coal mine safety standards so that, instead of longstanding and separate state rules, mine operators would be responsible for following only U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration regulations. The list of areas covered by this provision includes electrical standards, mine ventilation, roof control, safety examinations, dust control and explosives.

The bill was introduced during a Senate session by lead sponsor is Sen. Randy Smith (R-Tucker). Smith chairs the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee and is employed as a safety manager for Mettiki Coal. 

On March 14, Smith announced that he was sending the bill to a three-person subcommittee.

In an interview, Smith said he doesn’t necessarily support all provisions of the bill he introduced. For example, he said he doesn’t really support taking away so much of the state mine safety office’s enforcement power.

“I’m the committee chairman, and we always introduce a bill and then we go through it and try to get something that everybody is good with,” Smith said. “If I could do it, I would conform with state laws and do away with federal laws, but that’s not going to happen. I would 10 times rather have the state agency telling us what to do instead of the federal.”

“This is a huge bill,” Smith said. “Some of it will be in there, and I’m sure some of it won’t.”


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