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Published: Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Page: 5A

In a recent opinion column, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association dismissed the assertion that Senate Bill 357 - the erroneously entitled Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015 - is a rollback of mine safety regulations as a "misnomer.

He is quick to characterize all those who disagree with the legislation as being anti-coal and against coal job creation. As a pro-coal, United Mine Workers of America coal miner, I am compelled to respond.

Mr. Hamilton offered his comments while pointing out a reporter error indicating the safety laws affected were adopted during Governor Joe Manchin's administration. With that point I would agree: The safety laws being cutback were in place prior to Manchin's term.

But that's irrelevant. This extreme legislation loosens coal mining safety regulations to the benefit of big corporations without any regard for worker safety.

One problem with debating this type of issue in a public forum is such laws are technically complicated. This requires understanding of underground mining safety practices, rather than a discussion reduced to sound bites.

Within that legislation, there were three significant changes in law that underground safety experts at the United Mine Workers of America and I believe weakened underground mine safety:

n Increase in track distance. The current law requires the track distance to be no farther than 500 feet from the face. This distance could be increased through a "variance, which requires special provisions must be in place to guarantee that an increased distance must be "as safe or safer than existing law. This application must be reviewed and approved by the technical review commission, which is made up of labor and industry, and resubmitted yearly to ensure the safety of the miners. The new law allows a distance of 1,500 feet (that's five football fields) without a variance. This will greatly increase time when an injured miner needs transported to the outside for medical emergencies.

Why this is important? When a miner is injured or has a health problem such as a heart attack, time matters. An incapacitated miner now may have to be carried up to five football fields underground in rough terrain to be evacuated. Allowing such a distance could cost a miner's life, but it also costs the operator less money.

n The diesel commission was abolished. The commission was established in the late 90s, when the Legislature allowed diesel equipment to be used in West Virginia mines. The commission, made up of three from industry and three from labor, reviewed proposed diesel packages submitted by companies to insure the equipment met all emission and safety standards before entering the mine. It was also charged with the duty of reviewing new, better, and ever-changing technology, to make sure we had the safest and best equipment standards available to keep miners from breathing harmful diesel particulate matter.

All of these responsibilities now go to the director. My fear is that all equipment will be "rubber stamped without careful review or regard for new technology.

n Moving of equipment. Moving of equipment with miners inby, on the same split of air, is now legal unless energized trolley wire exists. The abnormal moving of large equipment is dangerous to say the least. Anything can happen. Batteries can catch fire, the equipment could come in contact with high voltage cables and catch fire, and so on. If this happens, the smoke will travel to the area where miners are working and could result in a disaster.

This law became strictly enforced in 1972 after nine miners were killed in a tragedy in Monongalia County. A fire broke out while equipment was being moved at the Blackville #1 mine, and the miners were overcome by smoke. Their bodies were not recovered until some three months later.

Clearly the title of this bill does nothing to enhance the health and safety of miners. It only puts miners in harm's way, and profits ahead of safety.

The safety rollbacks contained in S.B.357 have not, and will not, bring one additional job to this state. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has agreed to study some of these safety rollbacks to determine if they have gone too far, but wouldn't it make more sense to do the study prior to changing the law and risking lives?

Mr. Hamilton is very effective lobbyist to a large degree because state legislators want to support one of our most important industries. But he truly does mischaracterize the purpose and motives to these changes in the (so-called) Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015, which is simply to put profits first.

Mike Caputo is a Democratic delegate from Marion County.

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