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“West Virginia Senate Bill Eliminates Mine Safety Enforcement”

By Ken Ward Jr. , Staff Writer, Charleston Gazette-Mail

State safety inspectors wouldn’t inspect West Virginia’s coal mines anymore. They would conduct “compliance visits and education.”

Violations of health and safety standards wouldn’t produce state citations and fines, either. Mine operators would receive “compliance assistance visit notices.”

And West Virginia regulators wouldn’t have authority to write safety and health regulations. Instead, they could only “adopt policies … [for] improving compliance assistance” in the state’s mines.

Those and other significant changes in a new industry- backed bill would produce a wholesale elimination of most enforcement of longstanding laws and rules put in place over many years — as a result of hundreds of deaths — to protect the health and safety of West Virginia’s coal miners.

Opponents are furious about the proposed changes but also fearful that backers of the bill could easily have the votes to push through any language they want. Longtime mine safety experts and advocates are shocked at the breadth of the attack on current authorities of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

“It’s breathtaking in its scope,” said mine safety expert Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration and led a team that called for strengthening — not weakening — the state’s mine safety efforts after the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine just seven years ago next month.

Senate Bill 582 is billed as legislation “relating generally to coal mining, coal mining safety and environmental protection.”

Various lobbyists and advocates, even many lawmakers, are still trying to sort out and understand its many provisions, which range from language rewriting the state’s program for holding mine operators responsible for cleaning up abandoned strip mines and properly classifying streams that are trout waters to consolidating existing state mine safety boards into one panel and creating a new mandate for state-funded mine rescue teams.

A legislative committee lawyer indicated that some provisions intended for the bill didn’t make it into the initial text, including a rewrite of language in water quality standards that has been the subject of much litigation aimed at reducing water pollution from large-scale surface mines. Those provisions would have to be amended into the bill or added through a committee substitute, the lawyer said.

The heart of the legislation is a section that simply eliminates the ability of state mine safety office inspectors to issue notices of violation or levy fines for mine operators or coal companies for any safety hazards unless they can prove there is an “imminent danger” of death or serious physical harm.

Language in the bill offers somewhat confusing answers about what inspectors would do if they found imminent danger. One part of the bill maintains the current law, which says that inspectors must issue an order to pull all miners out of the affected part of the mine until the hazard is corrected. Another section, though, refers to a new type of process involving a “notice of correction,” that appears to carry no monetary penalty.

One thing that is clear is that the bill would maintain and 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.

And, 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.

“It completely guts the state law,” said Josh Roberts, international health and safety director for the United Mine Workers union. “You’re taking back decades of laws.”

Roberts and McAteer agreed that the notion of deferring almost all state mine safety standards to the federal government is especially concerning, given the promises made by President Donald Trump to remove regulations the coal industry says have been hampering production and employment. McAteer noted that West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths last year and has had two deaths already in 2017.

“It is shocking that, after all these years and the numbers of West Virginians who have died in the mines, for the state to even consider this,” McAteer said Monday, after reviewing the legislation. “The state needs to be involved in making sure we are protecting our citizens. This should be one of the primary goals of the state government.”

Word that the coal industry was planning to have one of its supporters in the Legislature drop such a bill has been circulating since the start of the session in early February.

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Tuesday that he isn’t sure that his organization fully supports the reduced enforcement authority spelled out in the legislation.

Asked if that meant the industry feels the bill goes too far, Hamilton said, “We’re okay with it the way the bill is, but we just think it can be tweaked and maybe improved on.”

Hamilton said federal inspectors spend plenty of time at West Virginia’s coal mines and that having state inspectors doing the same thing is duplicative.

The current version of the bill was introduced during a Senate session on Saturday. The 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. Officials from Mettiki’s parent corporation, Alliance Resource Partners, were major contributors to Smith’s campaign. Alliance bills itself as the second-largest Eastern U.S. coal producer. Its Mettiki arm operates a large underground mine in Tucker County.

On Tuesday, with a near-packed committee room full of industry officials and some rank-and-file coal miners, and with the legislation on the agenda, Smith announced that he was sending the bill to a three-person subcommittee that would be chaired by EIM Committee Vice Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston. Other subcommittee members will be Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, and Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, Smith said.

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.

See the rest of the story: http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news-politics/20170314/wv-senate-bill-eliminates-mine-safety-enforcement#sthash.A8oevOgJ.dpuf

Source: Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

More Information:

Map: West Virginia Leads Nation in Coal Mining Deaths Since 2004

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“When It’s An OSHA Violation & When It’s Not”

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Take a look at the photo and see if you can name the OSHA trench safety violations. There’s a man in the trench – look closely, because you can barely see him. Then, there are the eight men surrounding the newly excavated hole, putting pressure on the excavation face. There’s no sloping, shielding or shoring—nothing to hold the soil back if it ever started to move.

There’s also no OSHA violation. Because these workers are employed by a city, not a private contractor, they don’t come under OSHA, an exemption dating back to the original 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. Instead, the safety of governmental workers is covered by a hodge­podge of state laws. According to safety consulting firm J. J. Keller, 21 states, plus Puerto Rico, have adopted state plans for both public and private entities. These programs, which have received the blessing of OSHA, are state­run, but jointly funded by the federal and state government. Another five states, plus the Virgin Islands, have state plans that cover just the public sector.

It gets more complicated. While they do not run state plans, six states (Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wisconsin) have what safety consultant BLR calls “comprehensive protections” for public sector workers that are at least as strict as OSHA regs. The level of adherence to OSHA regs for public workers then starts to dwindle, with six states – Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania – adopting some, but not all, of the OSHA rules. Georgia and Texas have adopted only the federal agency’s hazmat communication rules. The remaining 10 states – Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota – do not regulate workplace safety for the public sector.

Back to the picture. Since it was taken in Alabama, one of the states with no OSHA­-related public worker safety laws, only the laws of common sense were violated. My hope is this crew’s supervisor took one look at this picture in the local newspaper and immediately initiated trench safety training. While I hear plenty of gripes from contractors on how OSHA interprets its regs, I don’t hear much carping about the regs themselves, especially those pertaining to trench safety.

Do a quick internet search on trench accidents, and you’ll see the reason why; there’s been a litany of deadly events in the past two years alone. Regulations, of course, are only one part of the safety picture; they do not address the awareness needed when situations are dangerous, or the assertiveness required to call out a bad plan of action. Meanwhile, the physics of a cave­in remain constant ­­ a cubic foot of soil weighs an average of 100 pounds – no matter who employs the the person in the trench. – See more at: http://www.equipmentworld.com/when-its-a-osha-violation-and-when-its-not/#sthash.zYEizuUx.dpuf

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