West Virginia Senate advances mining bill with inspections

By Michael Virtanen, Associated Press

West Virginia lawmakers on Thursday began advancing revisions of coal mining regulations after removing provisions that would have sharply reduced safety inspections of underground mines.

 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers on Thursday began advancing revisions of coal mining regulations after removing provisions that would have sharply reduced safety inspections of underground mines.

The Senate Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining approved a substitute for the bill that would have chopped required annual state safety inspections from four to one.

The original measure also would have removed inspectors' authority to order mine closures after documenting "a history of repeated significant and substantial violations of a particular standard caused by unwarrantable failure to comply."

The United Mine Workers of America opposed the changes, noting the state standards are stricter than the federal standards and inspections that would remain.

UMWA representative Ted Hapney says the union strongly objected to the first version of the bill. That included "losing three inspections a year and reducing — well, actually taking away — the enforcement power of the agency," he said.

The new bill represents a consensus worked out among the union, coal operators and Gov. Jim Justice's administration.

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Operators Association, said the section about doing away with state enforcement was poorly drafted and needed additional discussion.

"It's our goal and hope to try and come up with some restructuring of the state program to preserve the jobs that are currently there and try to see if we can't come up with some addition approaches to improve mine health and safety," Hamilton said.

Under federal law, Hamilton said, every state mine undergoes inspections, "so are there ways we can get some of the state resources to get involved with training?"

Committee Chairman Randy Smith said the original measure included various provisions proposed by mine operators, the union and others and was meant to get people's attention.

"The original bill was a sort of shock and awe. ... We put a bunch of stuff on the table we had no intention of running. But we brought all the stakeholders to the table and we hashed it out and came up with a good bill," Smith said.

Remaining provisions address bonding for environmental cleanups, underground diesel engine regulation, plugging gas wells and merging three state mining oversight boards.

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