Senate passes bill that undermines job experience

By Steve Korris | Feb 8, 2006

CHARLESTON - West Virginia would no longer require underground coal mining experience for its mine safety director under a bill that the Senate passed Feb. 8.

The Senate acted a day after Gov. Joe Manchin announced that Doug Conaway, director of the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, planned to leave the job.

State law currently requires the office director to have five years of experience in underground coal mining.

Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said Manchin plans to appoint James Mitchell Dean, a West Virginia University professor who conducts safety seminars at mines across the state, to the poston an interim basis until permanent replacement is found.

Ramsburg also said WVU already has agreed to let Dean take the position on the interim basis. She also said Conaway would stay on board for a few weeks to make the transition smoother.

The bill passed by the Senate -- SB 539 -- would require five years of education, training or experience in underground coal mining safety.

State Sen. Jeffrey Kessler of Marshall County, chairman of the judiciary committee, sponsored the bill.

State law would continue to require the appointment of "a competent person of good repute and temperate habits." The person cannot have a financial interest in a mine.

Manchin, in announcing Conaway's departure, said Conaway told him in December that he planned to leave.

After an explosion at the Sago mine killed 12 miners, Manchin said, Conaway decided to stay on the job.

For weeks neither Manchin nor Conaway informed the public that Conaway would leave, but the introduction of Kessler's bill made an announcement necessary.

Manchin said, "Doug has truly done a remarkable job as he has led the response and investigation of our recent mining accidents."

The governor wished Conaway much success in new endeavors.

Conaway took the job in 2001, moving up from the enforcement and safety section.

Ramsburg said the governor and Conaway had not decided how long Conaway would stay.

Manchin will appoint a director in consultation with Commerce Secretary L. Thomas Bulla, who supervises the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

The agency employs 110 persons. Ramsburg said 73 are inspectors.

The agency operates offices in Fairmont, Oak Hill, Danville and Welch.

According to the agency Web site, its inspectors are responsible for 713 mines, quarries and handling facilities, and for 2,500 independent contractors.

Mining contractors employ about as many people as mines. In 2005, according to the website, mines employed 17,962 persons and contractors employed 17,392.

For 123 years the citizens of West Virginia have tried, ! through their Legislature, to protect their coal miners. The state’s first mine safety act passed in 1883.

From 1905 to 1985, the Department of Mines handled safety. It 1985 the department and its safety program merged into a new Department of Energy.

The Legislature set up the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training in 1991.

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