CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For two West Virginia lawmakers who lost fathers in coal mining accidents, preventing disasters like the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion has taken a personal turn with Monday's introduction of a bipartisan safety proposal.
House Speaker Rick Thompson was not yet born when a roof fall killed his father in 1952 at age 21. Delegate Charlene Marshall's dad died in the mines when she was 6. Now 78, the Monongalia County Democrat later lost her stepfather in a coal mine accident as well.
One of six children, Marshall recalls fleeing to a closet to smell her father's sweater in the years following his death — like Thompson's, in a roof fall — "to make me feel better."
"I would never want any young child to go through some of the things that I did," Marshall told The Associated Press on Monday.
Thompson and Marshall are among the 11 lawmakers sponsoring Monday's bill. In addition to increased training and stiffer sanctions for violations, the measure also proposes improving the role of miners' families during investigations. This would include allowing these survivors or their representatives to sit in on investigator interviews.
For years, both Thompson and Marshall knew little of what killed their fathers, the two legislators told AP. Their families had relied instead on word-of-mouth from other miners or relatives.
Marshall said she was campaigning door-to-door once when a voter told her he may have helped carry her father's body out of his Osage mine. Only recently did Thompson learn of a brief federal report on his father's accident, which differed both from the family's version and an account in a newspaper clipping unearthed by a constituent.
"Family members want to know what happened. When they're in the dark, it makes the hurt that much harder to stand," said Thompson, D-Wayne.
The bill also orders a review of the three reports issued so far by Upper Big Branch investigators. This provision's goal: to identify and then remedy the problems with enforcing safety standards each cited in the wake of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades.
The explosion in the underground Raleigh County mine killed 29 miners. All three reports — from a special independent investigation, the United Mine Workers union and federal regulators — fault then-owner Massey Energy Co. for allowing the conditions that led to the blast. The federal report, issued late last year by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, further blamed the disaster's root cause on Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems.
This study could trigger a wide-ranging rewrite of state safety regulations and sanctions for violators, Thompson said.
"We've tried to recognize the hard work behind the investigative reports, and to prevent these things from occurring," the speaker said.
A related provision would create a special investigative panel to review any future underground accident, specifically to recommend legislation if deemed necessary.
"I hope we never use that panel," Thompson said. "But we've noticed a weakness in the system."
The bill would make permanent a recently created toll-free line for anonymous whistleblower tips, and require the phone number to be posted prominently at all mines. It would allow miners to leave areas they reasonably believe to be unsafe, and extend their pay from the end of that day's shift to up to 10 days when safety violations force a mine's idling.
The measure also would require mining machines to shut off automatically once methane gas levels reach a certain level. The state's Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety reviewed this provision and recommended the proposed methane level, Thompson said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also plans to introduce mine safety legislation this session, prompted in part by Upper Big Branch. He told the Legislature during last week's State of the State address that he will propose whistleblower protections as well as new standards for tamping down explosive coal dust and mandatory sensors on long wall mining machines for detecting methane.
Thompson said the governor's bills are given priority in the House, but he hopes that Monday's proposal would serve as a companion measure or provide amendments to Tomblin's. The speaker said he's leaving those decisions to the House Judiciary Committee, which would review both.
House Bill 4085: http://tinyurl.com/6s5cqg7