The House passed Senate Bill 357 Friday, the Coal Jobs and Safety Act of 2015. This bill has caused a lot of controversy, so it was no surprise when the House debated the bill for two hours. Republicans feel like the bill is an update to previous safety laws, while some Democrats feel like it’s a scale back.
“This act strengthens the state’s enforcement of the coal industry’s drug testing program to treat all miners the same and promote drug free coal mines," Delegate John Shott, the Judiciary Chair, explained, "It updates West Virginia mine laws on equipment movement and operation to match federal regulations and well-established safety standards; in one instance exceeding the federal regulations requiring the movement of workers out by when in the case of the movement of equipment where electrified trolley wires are present. It also places oversight of underground diesel equipment in the hands of experienced state mine safety regulation, regulators. It syncs state reclamation rules with federal laws to bring consistency to regulatory oversight. It adjusts the aluminum water quality standard to reflect the latest science and better protect the environment, and it conforms, permit enforcement processes to federal laws.”
After the bill was explained to members, a flood of debate ensued on the floor. Republicans expressed belief the bill was steering the coal industry in the right direction, because it was updating technology and saving money, while Democrats felt the bill would roll back the safety laws currently in place.
The bill had full support from Republicans but Democrats were divided.
Delegate Rupert Phillips of Logan County was one of those Democrats who supported the bill.
“If we’re going to move our state forward and be competitive on what’s built this state, the backbone of the state; the coal, the coal miner, we’ve got to move forward," Phillips noted, "We cannot continue to let DC, EPA, and other groups overregulate our industry.”
Delegate Gary Howell, the Government Organization Chair, also supported the bill.
“It is time we updated these laws for safety," Howell said, "Time changes, technology changes, we must make sure our coal miners are safe. I support this bill, and I hope you will to for the safety of our miners.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County was strongly against the bill.
“There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing," Fleischauer said, "And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”
Minority Leader, Tim Miley, also expressed rejection of the bill.
“We haven’t even heard the cost savings per ton, as to what this bill will accomplish," Miley noted, "Wouldn’t you think, you can measure man hours saved by activities in the mine that you do or don’t have to do as a result of this bill, you can measure that. How many man hours, combined man hours does it take to stop the mining operations, move heavy equipment, and then bring the miners back, you can measure all of that, this is the 21st Century. You can measure all of that. We can measure what effects and cost savings, the environmental aspects of this bill will have. We can measure how much it costs to lay track, we can measure all of that, that’s how you come up with a cost per ton as far as how much it costs to mine a ton of coal. If it really were to gonna save that kind of money to reinvest back into creating jobs, I think we would know that.”
After the two hour debate, House Bill 357 passed, 73 to 25, with only Democrats voting against.