Leah Willingham Published

Sponsor Halts Mine Safety Overhaul Bill That Raised Concern

Brandon Steele - WV Legislature - Jan 2020.jpg

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.

The legislation, which would have essentially stripped the state office of miners’ health, safety and training of its enforcement power, drew concern from miners and experts who testified at the state Capitol earlier this week.

Waiting outside the House chambers Wednesday with a small group of miners, United Mine Workers of America representative Chad Francis said they’d spent the last few days begging lawmakers not to move forward with the proposal.

“I think they realized what a bad bill it was,” he said.

It called for removing almost all penalties mining companies might face for safety violations. Under current law, companies can face thousands of dollars of fines and even prison time for failing to implement safety measures. The state can also close down portions of a mine or an entire mine.

The bill also would have removed the requirement that West Virginia’s state mine inspectors inspect mines at least four times a year. Instead of going to mines for inspections, inspectors would go for “visits” and make “recommendations” instead of “orders.” There would be no more “investigations,” just “reviews.”

Pat McGinley, West Virginia University law professor who has studied mine safety for years, said Wednesday he’d never seen a bill that goes so far to retreat from the state’s commitment to protect coal miners. McGinley sat on the state’s gubernatorial independent investigation teams that investigated the Sago and Upper Big Branch mine disasters.

“This bill de-fangs the state’s coal mine safety law. It ties the hands of the inspectors, who are essentially the coal industry police,” he said. “If you take police off the streets, or you eliminate them, what’s the effect going to be?”

More injuries and deaths, he said.

Steele said he thinks there’s been misinformation about the bill. He said no positions within the state’s mine safety agency would be lost. He and his co-sponsors have said during the session that the proposal was more of a culture shift to nudge the focus of inspectors more toward training than enforcement.

They’ve said it will make companies feel freer to bring up concerns to the state about possible safety violations if they aren’t at risk of being fined. The bill’s sponsors also have argued that the existence of federal inspectors makes state inspectors redundant.

But experts like McGinley say that’s not the case.

“For decades, we’ve had both federal and state inspectors underground and it still hasn’t been safe enough,” he said.

Steele said Wednesday he was prepared to make adjustments to the bill to alleviate some concerns, but ultimately decided to hold off a year.

“I think there’s some good ideas in there,” he said. “We’ll see what we can learn from it, and we’ll work with the coal community — whether it be miners or mine operators — and see what we can do.”