February 8, 2012

Independent Investigator Weighs In On Mine Safety Bills

From: MetroNews (WV)

Legislation designed to fix the problems that lead to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, the massive explosion that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010, is now getting the attention of lawmakers at the State Capitol.

“Our focus is on what caused this accident,” Independent Investigator Davitt McAteer said on Tuesday’s MetroNews Talkline.  “This accident is coal dust, this accident is methane gas and the absence of ventilation and a failure to follow basic rules.”

McAteer, a former Mine Safety and Health Administration head, came up with those findings after conducting a separate investigation into the UBB Disaster.

He was one of the officials who testified at an informational meeting on proposed coal mine safety legislation at the State House on Tuesday afternoon.  It was the second such meeting this week.

The meetings follow the introduction of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety bill last week.  Leaders in state House of Delegates have also already proposed a similar measure.

Among other things, the Governor’s bill would make it a felony crime for workers at a coal mine to be notified when federal and state mine inspectors arrive at a site.  Punishments are spelled out in the bill.

McAteer says that is a good provision.

“We have such dangers underground that we need to have the inspectors know what the actual situation is, not one created about 15 minutes before the inspector gets there.”

However, he says he does not agree with the part of the bill that would require pre-employment drug screens for anyone going to work in a coal mine.  McAteer says drug use was not a factor in the UBB Disaster.

“Our suggestion is that we take our steps one at a time and that we look at if there’s evidence to support that kind of investigation or that kind of testing,” he said.

Governor Tomblin’s bill would require more training in the use of self contained self rescuers, extend the number of training days for red hat miners underground from 90 days to 120 days, alter rock dusting standards and set up a procedure for approving mine ventilation plans.

The House bill does some other things.

It guarantees that certain people can be part of investigatory interviews following mine accidents, gives some protections to miners who leave a mine area because they do not think it is safe and sets up an independent investigatory panel.

Both bills would require automatic equipment shutdowns when methane amounts reach certain levels.

On Monday, lawmakers heard from state Mine Safety Office Deputy Director Eugene White, state Coal Mine Health and Safety Administrator Joel Watts and West Virginia Coal Association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton.

The UBB Disaster was the deadliest in the United States in 40 years.

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