By MIKE CAPUTO
CHARLESTON – When I arrived at the Legislature as a newly elected delegate in 1996, having worked in the mining industry for 20 years, I was saddened to realize that when the Legislature took significant steps to improve safety standards in the coal mines, it was usually in response to a fatal accident.
In many cases when we passed those new requirements, I had hoped the Legislature would do more, but I took solace in the fact that we were moving forward in improving West Virginia’s mine safety standards.
After the horrific disasters at Sago, Aracoma and Upper Big Branch, lawmakers closely reexamined the state statutes surrounding mining practices.
It was painful that once again it took the blood of miners to bring about much-needed change, but I took comfort in knowing that the new laws would help prevent accidents like these from happening again.
Now, as I am serving my 19th legislative session, I am horrified to witness an attempt by new legislative leaders and the West Virginia Coal Association to roll back coal mine health and safety regulations.
I find it difficult to comprehend.
Two bills – Senate Bill 357 and House Bill 2566 – would make several changes to loosen coal mining safety regulations.
The nearly identical bills would abolish the West Virginia Diesel Commission, which protects the health and safety of miners in underground mines that use diesel powered equipment. The Diesel Commission has many duties, including ensuring that all such equipment meets safety requirements. Those duties would be transferred to a single person: the director of the Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training.
The bills would increase the distance a rail track can be from the working face area from 500 feet to 1,500 feet – a distance of five football fields an injured miner would have be transported to reach rail transportation to the outside.
They would also strip language intended to protect miners from ventilation dangers related to smoke and fire in instances of moving equipment. That provision became the focus of intense scrutiny after the 1972 Blacksville No. 1 Mine Fire in Monongalia County that killed 9 West Virginia coal miners.
Fire erupted when the continuous miner came into contact with a trolley wire, and rescue attempts were thwarted by thick smoke. Nine young West Virginia men lost their lives that day – eight members of the UMWA Local 1588, District 31 and a 23-year-old foreman. These men, some of them in their early 20s, left behind 9 widows and 20 children. These men were fathers. Brothers. Sons. Friends.
Representatives of the coal industry have said this legislation will allow companies to reduce operating costs to help make them more competitive. The coal industry says it will “streamline important safety processes.” This isn’t streamlining. This is eliminating vital protections that miners have fought to put in place for years. Protections that our miners need and deserve.
Coal industry officials claim our state’s regulations have made West Virginia coal uncompetitive. I reject that claim. Stronger mine safety standards make our state safer. Safer for your family members, neighbors and friends who work in mines across our state.
Fewer safety standards mean less expense for the mine operator, but at what cost to the miner?
That, unfortunately, I readily comprehend.
It’s an effort to help big business prosper at the worker’s peril. This extreme legislation is being pursued to benefit big corporations without any regard for worker safety. It’s radical, it’s irresponsible and it’s wrong. Legislative changes have consequences. I fear the consequences of the so-called “Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015” will be measured in lives lost, not in dollars saved.
We owe it to our miners and their families to prevent the state from taking a step backward. Will you help me fight?
Caputo (D-Marion) is House Minority Whip and is United Mine Workers of America District 31 international vice president.