The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 3, 2011

Mine safety bills gain approval

CHARLESTON — A dual effort to beef up safety in West Virginia’s underground coal mines and protect workers calling attention to shaky conditions has gained approval in the House of Delegates.

Sent to the Senate were bills that call for machinery to automatically shut down when methane reaches 1 percent of the atmosphere and shield whistle-blowing miners from retaliation.

While neither proposal came as a direct result of them, they drew inspiration from mine disasters at the Sago mine in Upshur County and Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, led passage of the bill that insists on an automatic shutoff of longwall shearers, continuous miners and the like if methane exceeds 1 percent.

“The law is very clear,” Caputo said.

“When the methane reaches in excess of 1 percent, you are to cease mining, shut down the machine, properly ventilate and do what you need to clear the air and make sure you don’t have a fuel source in case you have an ignition.”

Twenty-nine workers were killed in the April 5 blast at the Massey Energy subsidiary in Montcoal.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has tentatively blamed the explosion on a massive accumulation of coal dust, triggered by a pocket of methane.

Massey Energy, in turn, has said the problem was caused by a buildup of natural gas.

In both bills, the House is asking the state Board of Coal Mine Safety and Health to examine the House’s intent and report its findings and recommendations by the December interims to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance.

“My recommendation is that they would automatically shut off so we know that no one can mine if there’s gas in that atmosphere, because that’s the law,” said Caputo, an international representative of the United Mine Workers of America.

Caputo feels the only opposition would come from operators intent on mining beyond the law.

“There’s no other argument, quite frankly, other than someone who may be mining illegally,” he said.

“The law is very clear. You cease mining, knock the power, you ventilate the area.”

Caputo is a co-sponsor of a bill led by Delegate Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, in whose district the Sago mine disaster occurred, killing a dozen miners in 2006.

Last year, in the wake of the UBB tragedy, the worst in mining in four decades, miners testified at a Beckley hearing by a congressional panel they felt intimidated when reporting hazardous conditions.

“We can’t stick our head in the sand and act like this stuff really doesn’t happen out there,” Caputo said.

Caputo pointed to this week’s indictment of a UBB official, accused of lying to authorities and destroying evidence.

“There is intimidation in those work places,” the delegate said.

“That’s a given. We all believe that. Anyone at the workplace should be allowed to stand up for health and safety.”

Even before the Sago and Upper Big Branch disasters, Caputo said he has sought approval of corrective measures but acknowledged the two tragedies have given the bills some impetus.

“Before UBB and Sago, I ran health and safety issues my whole career here,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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