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Despite lack of UBB link, Tomblin focused on miner drug testing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mandatory drug testing for coal miners is the cornerstone of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's legislative response to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, but drug use has not been found to have played a role in the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, West Virginia lawmakers were told Monday.

Eugene White, acting deputy director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said his agency has not discovered any evidence that drug use contributed to the deaths at the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County.

White testified Monday in the first of a two-day informational session for lawmakers who are considering Tomblin's bill and a rival proposal by Democratic leaders in the House.

"Not that I am aware of, sir," White told lawmakers when asked if there were any connections between drug use and the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

White's agency has not yet released a formal report on its disaster investigation, but three other reports -- by independent investigator Davitt McAteer, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the United Mine Workers -- made no mention of drug use as a contributing factor. The state's report is expected to be released later this month.

McAteer is to appear before lawmakers today, along with UMW safety director Dennis O'Dell. Along with White, Monday's hearing included testimony from Joel Watts, administrator of the state mine safety board, and Chris Hamilton, lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association.

Tomblin has proposed mandatory drug testing for miners as part of his mine safety legislation, and the coal industry is pushing the idea, which it has long championed.

The House leadership's bill does not include drug testing. Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a UMW representative, noted that most major coal companies -- especially large unionized ones -- already have their own employee drug testing programs.

State mine safety officials say their agency is already stretched thin, despite an infusion of state money that increased the number of inspectors from 96 at this time last year to 116 as of last month. And White said additional duties to either do drug testing itself or oversee operator programs would make things even tougher.

"If you're saying we're doing drug testing or overseeing it at the mines in the state, we would definitely have to have staff, resources and training," White said.

Investigative reports released to date generally agree that the Upper Big Branch disaster was caused by Massey Energy's systematic failure to follow safety rules governing mine ventilation, roof control, and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust.

Hamilton urged lawmakers not to take those conclusions, paint mine operators with a broad brush, and pass measures that would crack down too hard on an industry he said faces more scrutiny than any other.

"I would never attempt to defend what happened at UBB," Hamilton said. "But please, don't anyone think that is common place or happens elsewhere in the industry."

Hamilton said the coal association would like to see the director of the state mine safety office elevated to a gubernatorial cabinet-level position, as the Department of Environmental Protection secretary was several years ago.

The mine safety office currently reports to the governor through the Department of Commerce Secretary, but previously was an independent agency and before that was part of the old Department of Energy.

Hamilton also said his organization would like to see the state "redirect" its inspections to focus attention on mines with a recent history of poor safety performance.

Currently, state law requires all underground mines to be inspected by the state four times per year. Hamilton said he would not reduce that, but would cut back on the time inspectors spend at the mines with good safety performance.

"We have an opportunity to take our limited resources on the state level and dispatch those resources to the areas with the greatest need," Hamilton said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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