Accident Fallout Overwhelms W. Va. Mining Agency

A recent rash of mining accidents in West Virginia has left the state's Office of Miner's Safety, Health and Training stretched thin. The current director has offered his resignation and inspectors are overwhelmed by a demand for immediate inspections of all 397 of the state's active coal mines.

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After 16 miners died in West Virginia in less than a month, West Virginia governor Joe Manchin called for immediate inspections of all state coal mines, and he vowed to make West Virginia the safest place in the nation to mine coal. But, two weeks later, the small state agency charged with following through on that pledge is overwhelmed.

Anna Sale, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

ANNA SALE: The Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training regulates the coal industry in West Virginia. Like the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, the state agency regularly inspects mines and investigates serious mining accidents. With four fatal accidents so far this year, that has stretched the office's resources.

TERRY FARLEY: We aren't set up to conduct a couple of disaster investigations simultaneously. We just don't have extra people floating around to do that.

SALE: Terry Farley is a long-time administrator at the state mine safety agency. It has a staff of 115, about two-thirds of whom are inspectors. Farley says that's generally enough to manage the usual workload of training, licensing, and scheduled inspections. But not now.

FARLEY: We've got roughly twenty percent of the inspection force involved in investigations. And that of course doesn't relieve us of our duty to inspect the mines as we normally do.

SALE: The office is also conducting additional safety measures ordered by the Governor after two miners died in separate accidents on the same day.

Karen Gresham is the agency spokeswoman.

KAREN GRESHAM: Our employees have visited mines in the state to help with the initial stand down safety meetings, and then the inspectors are visiting all of the mines to do an additional inspection because of the concern about the injuries and the accidents.

SALE: West Virginia has 397 active mines. The agency won't have those inspections finished until the end of March. They've resulted in no mine closures, though the agency has that authority. Some citations have been issued, but Gresham says the number isn't available. She says the field offices haven't had time to compile the information.

GRESHAM: I think they're trying to get the paperwork done as fast as they can, but these inspections are the priority.

SALE: Gresham herself has only been at the agency for about a month. She was pulled over from the Division of Tourism, where she's the Communications Director. The Governor's office has also looked to the private sector for help in evaluating the agency's work.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.

JOE MANCHIN: We're reviewing the whole procedures of our own in-state mining safety office. Also, the communication PR staff, and also included in that is going to be our legal staff, which they have none.

SALE: But some think immediate staffing increases are warranted. Rick Glover is a former mine inspector for the United Mine Workers. He serves on the state's board of coal mine safety and health, a group that reviews and issues mine safety regulations.

RICK GLOVER: I do believe that with the boom in the coal industry, we don't have enough inspectors. And then when you identify the problem mines, a lot of these inspectors aren't getting back to those mines like they probably would like to, to double check.

SALE: But the West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group that represents mine operators, says the state agency is big enough. Bill Raney, the group's president, says the state already duplicates federal enforcement.

BILL RANEY: We're one of the few states in the nation that has a state agency that is a safety agency that does the same thing that the federal agency does.

SALE: Govenor Manchin bristles at the suggestion of relying on federal enforcement alone.

MANCHIN: The only thing I've said to the federal government, we are going to continue to push safety first and foremost. That's us. And we hope that they are moving as rapidly as we will be moving.

SALE: Manchin's current budget bill earmarks six million dollars to the agency, just a one percent increase from last year. But he says he may request more, pending the results of the agency review.

Meantime, the governor's working with the agency on still another task, a national search for a new director. Citing personal reasons, the former director, Doug Conaway, announced his resignation after more than twenty years with the agency.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Charleston, West Virginia.

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