Two days of hearings at the Legislature last week on proposals to provide a safer working environment for West Virginia’s coal miners established a consensus that House Speaker Richard Thompson’s bill is preferable to the legislation proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Thompson and 10 other House members have introduced HB4085, which includes more efforts to make the coal companies accountable for any failures to provide working conditions underground that are as safe as possible. The Wayne County Democrat’s father died in a mining accident.
Tomblin’s major emphasis is on a requirement for drug-testing of all miners. At the hearing, that was labeled a “distraction” by Davitt McAteer, who led the independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners. Dennis O’Dell, safety director for the United Mine Workers, said it is questionable whether the drug testing is even needed since most of the state’s major coal companies already have their own programs to drug test workers. Eugene White, the acting deputy director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told legislators during the first day of the joint House-Senate hearings last Monday that his agency found no evidence that drug use contributed to the deaths.
O’Dell and McAteer both testified the second day of hearings in the House of Delegates chamber that there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the bodies of any of the 24 miners examined after their deaths in the 2010 tragedy at Big Branch Mine. In fact, both of them said there was no evidence of drug or alcohol contributing to any coal mine fatalities in recent years. O’Dell is a West Virginia native who worked in underground mines for nearly 20 years.
The governor’s bill (SB448 and HB4351) will be considered by both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, so that means every one of the 34 senators except President Jeff Kessler will be involved in consideration of the legislation. Thompson’s bill has been assigned only to the House Judiciary Committee as has the governor’s proposal.
Both bills contain similar language that provides criminal penalties when someone is found guilty of giving advance notice of government mine inspections. Both also provide for the automatic shutdown of mining equipment when explosive methane gas is present at a certain level.
Hopefully, the Legislature will be able to come up with meaningful coal mine safety legislation at this 60-day session that is now more than half over. It has been nearly two years now since the tragic incident at Big Branch Mine and there has been no action so far to enact any new, meaningful mine safety laws.
McAteer said the findings at Upper Big Branch are so much like the causes of the Monongah mine disaster in 1907, which killed several hundred workers. More than a century later this state continues to have one of the worst records in terms of coal mining deaths–a situation that demands a legislative response this session.
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Meanwhile, the primary election contest between former state Sen. Frank Deem, a Republican from Wood County, and incumbent state Senate Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, in the 3rd Senatorial District, is going to resolve a thorny issue that is long overdue for resolution. In Section 4, Article VI, the state Constitution requires that when a senatorial district is composed of more than one county — 15 of the 17 senatorial districts are in this category — both of the senators from that district cannot be from the same county.
A veteran of legislative service in both the House and Senate, the 83-year-old Deem lost a 2010 race to fellow Wood County resident David Nohe who is now serving a four-year term that ends in 2014. So Deem has filed to challenge Boley in the 2012 Republican primary election to test the constitutional restriction on the basis that Wood County, with a 2010 population of 86,956, has nearly 80 percent of the voters in the 3rd Senatorial District while the other three counties combined have only 28,248.
The situation is even more glaring in the 5th Senatorial District where only about 7,500 of Wayne County’s 42,481 residents live in the district but are guaranteed one of the two senators while all of Cabell County’s 96,319 residents are allowed only the one member of the Senate. Kanawha County, where the 193,063 residents, have four senators in two separate districts.
So the dispute between Deem and Boley appears headed for a court case since the secretary of state has accepted Deem’s candidacy filing and fee with the comment that it’s up to the judicial branch of government to referee this kind of dispute. Boley initially at least seems inclined to try to beat him at the polls first.
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Finally, apparently Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, seriously believes it should be illegal for legislators to raise campaign money during the 60-day legislative session, particularly in a year when many of them are running for another term. More than half the other 49 states already have such restrictions on giving and receiving campaign contributions during the legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But it must be clear just how restrictive this proposed law would be. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, presumably was serious when he said he was worried the bill as introduced would prevent him from being in the church where he preaches when the plate is being passed for the offering.