West Virginia House lawmakers introduced a new coal mine safety bill Monday designed to increase penalties on safety violators and ensure underground mine equipment shuts off when explosive gas levels rise.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and Delegate Charlene Marshall, D-Monongalia, who both lost relatives in mine accidents, back the House bill.
The safety package is based on a review of three reports on the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the industry’s worst in four decades.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said last week he intends to introduce a new mine safety bill. It will be introduced by Friday, according to the Governor’s Office. The details of Tomblin’s proposal remain unclear.
The House bill would require certain mining machines to automatically shut down if methane becomes 1.25 percent of the air. Methane is the explosive gas trapped in coal seams that helped fuel the explosions that tore through Upper Big Branch. Methane is explosive when it makes up between 5 to 15 percent of the air.
Right now, an overlapping series of state and federal regulations deal with methane levels. Here, it is illegal to mine when methane levels are at 1 percent, but machines don’t have to automatically shut down unless methane levels reach 2 percent.
The new automatic shutdown level was recommended by the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety after lawmakers requested a study of the issue.
The House bill also increases the maximum civil penalty on operators from $3,000 to $10,000 for violations of state mine safety laws. It also increases the penalty for making false statements to investigators from $5,000 to $10,000 and increases possible jail time to a year from six months.
It also creates two new state crimes, both felonies. The first is for knowingly permitting or contributing to a violation, which will be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The second makes it a crime for anyone to tip off a mine that inspectors are coming.
House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said the House bill and Tomblin’s bill will likely merged to create a single bill.
Caputo, a United Mine Workers of America representative, said lawmakers are “anxious” to see what Tomblin will propose. But Caputo said the end goal should be miner safety, not necessarily a universally palatable bill.
“I’m not saying ‘Something we can call agree on,’ I’m not saying ‘Compromise,’ I’m saying something that protects the health and safety of miners,” Caputo said. “If the industry doesn’t like it, that’s just too damn bad.”
The House bill also has provisions that:
- encourage miners to withdraw from unsafe working conditions
- establishes additional miner safety training, including additional training related to repeated violations
- extend the period companies have to pay miners who are idled by unsafe working conditions that force inspectors to withdraw miners from the mine
- establish an independent panel to investigate serious mine accidents. Such panels have been formed by the Governor’s Office following the Sago and Upper Big Branch disasters.
- require a study to assess the need to revise administrative enforcement processes and policies to promote timely and effective enforcement of mining safety laws.
- increase the ability of state regulators to oversee mine ventilation plans by allowing them to shut down a mine if a company repeatedly submits ventilation plans regulators consider inadequate.
Caputo said he expects the House mine safety bill and Tomblin’s bill to be worked on by a House Judiciary subcommittee. He said he expects testimony to come from mine safety experts, the industry and union officials.