West Virginia miners beat back an attempt this week to weaken their mine safety protections.
West Virginia mine worker Steven H. Hively, was killed last week when he was pinned by an air drill at Ramaco Resources’ Berwind Mine Complex in McDowell County. Hively was the second West Virginia miner to die this year. On January 14, Jeffrey Phillips, 44, a worker for contractor NextGen Industrial Services, died after he fell while working above a beltline in the prep plant of the Ohio County Coal Company’s Ohio County Mine. Four West Virginia miners were killed on the job in 2021.
But a little death never got in the way of West Virginia mine owners.
A Culture Shift
Under West Virginia law, state mine inspectors were required to inspect mines 4 times each year. But the continuing deaths in West Virginia mines, not to mention the still too recent West Virginia mine disasters at Sago and Upper Big Branch argue that even the current protections aren’t enough. But instead of strengthening workplace protections for miners, West Virginia mine owners want to go in a different direction.
Instead of all those inspections, West Virginia House Bill 4840 would have “shifted the state agency’s focus to assisting mine companies with “alternative mechanisms of enforcement” instead of enforcement.” And the office’s director would be able to determine the frequency of mine inspections. Instead of issuing “orders” and fining mine companies when violations were identified, mine inspectors would make “recommendations.” And the bill would get rid of all those confrontational and terribly unpleasant terms like “enforce” and “enforcement.” There would be “visits,” instead of “inspections, and “reviews,” instead of “investigations.” And job-killing, profit-threatening, and freedom-destroying civil penalties for failure to report a mining incident would also be eliminated.
According to Republican Del. Adam Burkhammer, a contractor with the West Virginia Miner’s Health and Safety program,
a “culture shift” is needed to nudge the focus of inspectors more toward training than enforcement. He said there will still be the same number of inspectors in the state with the same jurisdiction on the mines, “but you’re going to have a different outlook when you walk onto the job. You’re going to be inspecting for things that you can train on.”
Burkheimer also argued that the state’s efforts were redundant, because the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration also inspects coal mines.
But according to attorney and miner advocate Tony Oppegard,
The bill would do nothing to improve safety for miners. He called it an “anti-safety bill masquerading as a safety bill.” Leaving only the federal safeguards in place, he added, “basically it cuts protection for coal miners in half.” He said the real motivation for the bill is the bottom line. “If you’re an advisory agency, it’s less expensive for the operator, because they don’t have to worry about paying any fines,” Oppegard said. “They really don’t have to worry about their mine being shut down for any reason.”
Every one of these laws has blood on them
West Virginia coal miners, of course, were not taking this lying down. Backed by the United Mine Workers of America, dozens of helmeted coal miners came to a hearing to protest the bill. Barry Brown, a disabled coal miner who worked underground for 32 years told the legislators.
Every one of these laws that’s written, state and federal, they’re not wrote by ink. They’re wrote by blood. Every one of these laws has blood on them. Doing away with the state department and their enforcement, I think, would be the worse thing that this state could do.
The lead sponsor of a proposed overhaul of West Virginia’s mine safety law says he wants to work on the bill further and bring it back next year. House Bill 4840 failed to move forward on Wednesday in the House after a key deadline for bills to pass in order to be considered before the 2022 legislative session ends. “After seeing the opposition and talking to the folks who showed up to talk about it, I thought, you know, maybe it’s something we need to take a harder look at,” Republican Del. Brandon Steele said.
But as Steele says, they’ll be back next year.