CHARLESTON—When Eugene White went to work in the coal mines in the 1970s, he observed miners who came to work drunk sometimes. Some miners used marijuana, but there was no drug testing, he said. 

White, now the director of the State Mine Safety Office told legislators on the Joint Committee on Energy Monday that those past problems pale in comparison to the growing substance abuse issues in West Virginia's coal mines. 

"Over the years I hadn't seen this problem until we started doing substance abuse screening," he said. "I thought after the first year it would go down. I thought after the second year it would go down.

White said drug abuse among coal miners "has just mushroomed."

More than 800 miners have failed drug tests over the last three years, he continued. In 2013, 309 miners failed drug tests, that number rising to 314 the next year, he said. 

So far this year, 214 mining certificates have been suspended because of drug abuse, with prescription drugs the No. 1 substance detected. Marijuana is No. 2, according to the presentation White gave to lawmakers. 

The information comes to White's agency from coal companies. 

Out of the roughly 30,000 miners who "could work" — including contractors — in the 70 underground and 69 surface mines in operation, it's a small percentage, but for White the number is alarming. Of those, 107 had foreman's certifications,  and 49 were acting as supervisors, according to White's presentation. Also, 165 people failed pre-employment drug and alcohol screening, the presentation said. 

White said 252 individuals have been suspended for three years by the Board of Appeals taking no action and 10,607 Safety Sensitive cards were issued in 2013-14, while 143 individuals were reinstated, according to White's presentation.

"If you look at our coal mining ... we've lost a generation of miners," he said. 

White is also unsure that the number is an accurate reflection of how many coal miners may show up to work with drugs in their system, as some coal companies only test 25 percent of their employees annually, while others test 100 percent. 

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White also reported that his office is down to roughly 50 mine inspectors. That number is in line with the number of operating mines in the state, he said, with each inspector responsible for three to four mines. 

He said the decision to not replace retiring inspectors is fiscally responsible. 

"Safety is not being jeopardized by us not filling those positions," he said. "You have people who really don't have a lot to do.

White said with fewer mines to be inspected, it allows his staff to be more thorough. 

— Email: ppritt@register-herald.com Follow PamPrittRH on Twitter

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