Updated March 15 at 3:31 p.m.
When is a mine-safety agency not really a mine-safety agency? Soon, if a bill under consideration in the West Virginia Legislature passes. The proposal would prevent state regulators from writing policies, downgrading their work to drafting suggested guidelines; strip them of the ability to issue citations and fines; and demote safety inspections to offering “safety compliance assistance.”
Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, an expert reporter who’s set the standard on the mining beat for years, writes:
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.
Ward reports that rumors of an industry-backed bill along these lines have been circulating in Charleston since early February. The bill was introduced by Republican Senator Randy Smith, who is himself a safety manager for a mining company. Smith told the Gazette-Mail that he doesn’t really support taking away state enforcement power, even though it’s in the draft of the bill. Chris Hamilton, senior vice president at the West Virginia Coal Association wrote in an email, “We prefer the bill to be modified to allow for a balance of enforcement, technical support and mine emergency preparedness functions as oppose to mine inspectors being laid off.”