By Mannix Porterfield
Historic safety steps, once more written with the spilled blood of West Virginia coal miners, cleared the House of Delegates after one lawmaker Tuesday blasted Massey Energy’s attitude of “organized crime” in running the ill-fated Upper Big Branch mine.
In fact, it was the horrendous explosion inside the sprawling, Raleigh County mine on April 5, 2010, that led the House into passing vast new safety legislation sought by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Cleared on a 95-0 tally, the bill now heads to the Senate, with nine days left in this session.
Among provisions are ones demanding that safety reports be signed off at least every other week, beefing up the whistleblower protections, making it a felony to alert underground crews when an inspector arrives, the automatic shutoff of cutting machines when deadly methane is too high, and raising the amount of rock dust from 65 to 80 percent to keep down explosions of coal dust.
Four separate inquiries into the Upper Big Branch tragedy — the worst U.S. mining accident in four decades — concluded the deadly blast involved a massive buildup of coal dust, triggered by the explosion of a small pocket of methane.
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, a 35-year veteran of the industry, ran through a litany of mine disasters, dating back to 1891, showing how each either inspired new legislation or led to improved enforcement of existing laws.
“The more I read about the UBB tragedy, this wasn’t only bad business practices, this was akin to organized crime,” the international representative for the United Mine Workers of America declared.
“And it should be treated as such.”
Caputo said he wants to see a Justice Department investigation start at the bottom and reach the top of the hierarchy in the former Massey Energy, parent firm of Performance Coal Co., which operated UBB in the community of Montcoal.
That firm no longer exists, since it was absorbed by Alpha Resources after the UBB explosion.
Caputo then leveled a sharp blast at Massey’s controversial former chief executive officer, Don Blankenship.
“This may offend some people and I’m sure it does, but it is my hope that some day I can watch Don Blankenship be hauled off in shackles and sent to jail for the murder of these 29 men at UBB.”
Caputo applauded efforts to get the measure on the floor and enacted.
“Am I happy about the bill?” he asked, then answered, “Hell, no, I’m not happy. As I went through the list, we’re doing a bill because people died.”
“That’s the only time we pass meaningful legislation in this industry.”
Caputo emphasized that not all operators can be viewed as insensitive to the safety and welfare of their workers, pointing out he worked at a safe operation.
“Every operator should not be painted with that Massey brush,” he said.
“Every CEO should not be painted with that Don Blankenship brush. That’s why we’re here today. This industry has created far, far too many widows. This industry has created far, far too many orphans.”
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, delivered his first-ever floor speech in the six years he has headed the chamber’s leadership, focusing largely on a fatal mine accident that robbed him of his father, while his 18-year-old mother was three months pregnant with him.
Only recently did he finally get an official word from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration about the 1952 accident, the speaker noted.
Like others, Thompson found it regrettable that it customarily takes a disaster before safety laws are strengthened.
“The only time we address this type of legislation is after a tragedy,” he said.
“For far too long, we’ve accepted the idea that catastrophes are an inherent risk of being a coal miner. It’s time we put that myth to rest. I believe this (HB4351) does that.”
A key provision that rankled some in the industry focused on the families of victims entitled to be represented at official hearings after a mining disaster.
Under the bill, the number of such representatives are limited to five, but they can be a union leader, friend, attorney, pastor and the like.
Thompson said he opposed the limit and admonished West Virginia’s mine safety director to keep him apprised of anything his agency needs to keep mining safe.
“You see something wrong, you tell me, and we’ll try to fix it,” the speaker said.
“I insist today this not be the last step in protecting our coal miners.”
The governor’s bill also provides for random drug testing, applicable to anyone on the mine property.
Tomblin’s bill attracted bi-partisan support, a fact not lost on Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“There is no such thing as Republican safety or Democrat safety — this is an issue that all of us care about,” said Armstead, who met with some of the victims’ families after the UBB explosion.
Delegate Rick Snuffer, R-Raleigh, recalled his attendance at some of the funerals and how that Davitt McAteer, who led an independent inquiry into UBB, concluded that the explosion wouldn’t have happened if existing laws had been pursued.
“And that is a sad commentary,” Snuffer said in floor remarks.
“We should pass every law we can to make mining safe. But if we’re not going to enforce the laws that are on the books now, why pass more?”
— E-mail: email@example.com