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Drug testing W.Va. coal miners up for review

Feb. 06, 2012 @ 08:52 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Testing coal miners for drugs presents both benefits and burdens to West Virginia regulators, the House and Senate Judiciary committees heard Monday as lawmakers pursue measures this session to improve mine safety.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed a wide-ranging mine safety bill that includes a mandatory, random screening program for all mine jobs requiring certification. The random testing should annually screen half of any employer’s certified workforce, the legislation says.

The two committees launched a two-day series of hearings Monday for that bill and others. Lawmakers seek to focus on proposals that respond to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion. The worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades, the underground Raleigh County blast killed 29 miners. The second hearing is slated for 2 p.m.Tuesday in the House of Delegates Chamber.

Eugene White, acting deputy director of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, estimated that drugs played a role in around 200 of the 5,413 complaints and incidents his agency investigated last year.

“Most of the complaints we get, believe it or not, a lot of them are from the wives of the miner,” White told the committees. “He’s home for the evening, and he’ll tell his wife that ‘They’re taking drugs or using drugs on the work area where I’m working.”’

White also said that his inspectors lack specific training on drugs and drug testing, and aren’t even allowed to touch a miner. He recalled once going underground on a drug complaint, and he had to ask a foreman to conduct the drug test. The young miner refused to cooperate, and White ordered him out of the mine.

“He left the property, and wrecked his vehicle,” White said.

House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, cited how coal operators are increasingly adopting their own screening programs. He asked White to provide any available figures of the number or percentage of West Virginia mines that are already testing. A senior official with the United Mine Workers union, Caputo said the northern West Virginia and Ohio operations where he represents miners all require drug screenings.

The UMWA has balked at random testing programs. Caputo questioned the potential burden of a screening program on White’s agency. White earlier told the committees that turnover remains an issue, with 27 employees leaving last year. The agency is also short seven or eight inspectors, White said.

“To add more things to your plate, without probably much more staff, that would very difficult, I’m assuming,” Caputo said.

“If you’re saying we’re going to do drug testing or oversee it at the coal mines in this state, we would definitely have to have staffing, resources and training,” White replied.

White also noted that none of the investigations so far into Upper Big Branch have found that drugs played any role in that disaster. The final report into the tragedy, from White’s agency, is expected at the end of the month, he said.

Tomblin has cited how neighboring Kentucky and Virginia already have state-run testing programs. Chris Hamilton, a senior vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, said those two states have so far suspended nearly 2,000 miners for drug use.

“We fear a number of those individuals are working here in the state of West Virginia,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton also cited several recent accidents in which drugs or alcohol played a role. In one, a mine car operator struck and killed a co-worker while abusing prescription drugs, Hamilton said. In another, he said, a truck driver at a surface mine was high on cocaine when he plowed into a vehicle carrying two engineers.

“We have our share of drug use in coal,” Hamilton said. “We ask for your support to help us as we move toward a drug-free workplace.”

The state Coal Association recommends that lawmakers elevate the head of White’s agency to the governor’s Cabinet, Hamilton said. It also proposes focusing inspectors on those mines with the most troubling safety records. The agency now inspects each of West Virginia’s 214 active mines four times a year, while federal regulators also inspect mines.

“We have an opportunity to take our limited resources on the state level and dispatch those resources at the areas of greatest need,” Hamilton told the committees.