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Mine safety work behind schedule, director says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's mine safety director on Tuesday offered lawmakers no answers for the state's string of three coal-mining deaths in a week, and acknowledged that his agency is behind on meeting important legislative mandates.

"I wish I could answer, and tell you what the problem is," said Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. "If I could, I probably wouldn't be the director. I'd be a consultant, and I'd be rich."

During a briefing in the House of Delegates chamber, White told lawmakers his agency was on schedule implementing new requirements for drug testing of coal miners, and has already stripped five workers of their mining licenses.

But White acknowledged, as The Charleston Gazette has reported, that efforts to implement new standards for methane monitoring and to enforce tougher coal-dust control standards were behind schedule. White said he has tried to make progress on those projects -- mandates of the mine safety bill pushed last year by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin -- since he took over as director on Jan. 1.

"I knew we had some issues we had to deal with," White told lawmakers. "We had to move."

White said his agency finally issued a proposed rule on the tougher coal-dust controls standards earlier this month, and is finalizing plans to begin citing violations of those standards.

Also administration officials said that they are "still in discussions" with industry and labor over implementing tougher requirements for shutting down mining equipment when explosive methane gas is detected.

House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a United Mine Workers representative, said he could accept that the methane monitoring rules were a "work in progress," despite a legislative mandate that the rules be finalized by last October.

But Caputo criticized White for a proposed rule that backs off across-the-board increases in safety fines in favor the industry's proposal to only raise penalties for more serious violations.

"I don't believe that was the intent of that legislation, and I was involved in it from the beginning, and it's my belief that all fines were to be increased," Caputo said.

Two freshmen House members who are coal miners -- Republicans Josh Nelson, of Boone County, and Randy Smith, of Preston County -- objected to language from last year's legislation increasing from 90 days to 120 days the length of time apprentice miners must work within sight and sound of a supervisor.

"You're really a baby-sitting service for 90 days, because you have to have someone with them all that time," said Smith, a foreman for Mettiki Coal. "Going to 120 days, we're really hampering our actual training of these individuals."

White responded that state regulators recommended the change in state law to increase "sight and sound" requirements following a January 2011 fatality at a Wyoming County mine.

Nineteen-year-old John C. Lester Jr. was a "red hat" apprentice miner who was killed when mine management allowed him to work underground for nearly three hours at Baylor Mining Inc.'s Jim's Branch 3A Mine, state and federal reports said. Lester was found dead in a coal chute, near the dumping point of a conveyor belt. He had apparently fallen into the belt, and was carried to the dumping point area along with a load of coal.

"Management was unable to positively state how Mr. Lester entered the mine on the morning of January 27, 2011," a state report said. "Furthermore, no one gave Mr. Lester instructions or directions that day or informed him under whose supervision he would be. Almost three hours went by on that day without the immediate supervisor on the section, or the mine foreman, checking on the location and safety of this apprentice miner, and only did so upon the request of Jerry Lane."

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


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