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Effort to put bill changing West Virginia mine safety agency back in committee fails

Delegates Phillip Diserio, second from left, and Kayla Young, second from right, tried to move a bill reforming the Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training to a second committee Friday. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — Democratic members of the West Virginia House of Delegates tried unsuccessfully Friday to move a bill converting the agency that enforces mine safety regulations into a training and support agency into a second committee for further review.

Most of the Republican majority voted Friday against a motion offered by Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, for the House to accept a minority report that recommended House Bill 4840, relating to the Office of Miners Health, be sent to the House Judiciary Committee for their recommendation. The motion failed 25-71 with three Republicans crossing the aisle to support the motion.

The bill would change the Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training from an enforcement agency to an agency focused on training and support for coal mine operators. The agency would no longer conduct mine inspections or impose fines on violators of mine safety regulations. Instead, the agency would offer recommendations and assistance with compliance.

The bill also removes approval fees for new mines required by the agency. It eliminates the Board of Appeals, instead sending appeals of suspensions and revocations of certificates to circuit court. It also reduced the time a certificate can be given for a new underground miner from six months to three months, similar to surface miners.

HB 4840 is a bill that originated in the House Government Organization Committee on Thursday, passing out of that committee after more than an hour of discussion and questions of the committee’s legal counsel. But a motion to move the bill and call the question was made and supported by a majority of the committee, ending further discussion or opportunities for amendments. The bill passed the committee in a 16-6.

Young said it was unfair to jam through HB 4840 as a last-minute originating bill that no member had seen until the day it was explained in committee Thursday. The process did not give members enough time to review the bill, and bypassing the House Judiciary Committee was inappropriate since the bill make substantial changes to state code.

“It was over 50 pages long. It completely changes an entire government office totally,” Young said. “We first saw the bill around 11 a.m. when we came on the floor before committee and we barely had a chance to even look at it, so we were looking at it during committee.”

Feb. 15 was the last day to introduce new bills in the House, though exceptions to this rule include supplemental appropriations, certain resolutions, and originating bills. Sunday, Feb. 27, is the last day for bills to get out of the committees in the house of origin, with Wednesday, March 2, the last day to consider bills on third reading before sending to the next body.

“Originating bills have had a second reference. This is one of the few that’s going straight to the floor,” Young said. “During questions of counsel, a motion was made to move the bill, so we didn’t get to continue questions of counsel. We didn’t get to ask for testimony from either the (West Virginia) Coal Association or from coal miners themselves; we couldn’t do that.”

House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, is the lead sponsor of the bill. He accused Democratic members of the committee of using questions of counsel to slow down the bill to prevent the committee from recommending the bill for passage. He said the committee followed all the House rules and processes.

“One of the members was questioning counsel for an extended period of time and there was no interruption. Good questions were being asked and everything was going well until another member began asking questions that were inflammatory and even derogatory towards counsel,” Steele said. “It devolved into the member reading the bill line by line and saying ‘is that what it says’ in an effort to filibuster the bill.”

Steele said while the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had put a moratorium on coal mine fines during the pandemic, the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training has continued to issue fines, collecting as much as $15 million in its special revenue account.

Steele also said the state’s mine inspectors were redundant, with 120 state inspectors compared to the approximately 500 federal inspectors both inspecting the 93 active coal mines in the state. HB 4840 follows a similar training-focused model in Kentucky and Illinois, where inspectors help miner operators with compliance with state and federal regulations.”

“Are we reinventing the wheel here? Absolutely not,” Steele said. “All the people that are working there as inspectors and so forth right now are still going out and assisting the mines. They are showing them violations and instead of handing them a fine, they are telling them how to get it fixed and what they need to do to make things better.”

Del. Phillip Diserio, D-Brooke, said HB 4840 was an insult to all the families who have lost a coal miner to an accident.

“I would not be able to look anyone in the eye that has lost a family member in a coal mine and tell them we talked about this for an hour,” Diserio said. “Once again, think about the people who lost their lives in coal mines and why these bills were written; to keep our citizens safe. I can’t tell you how many times in the last nine years how many times I’ve heard ‘our precious coal miners’ in this body. How about let’s show them how precious they are today.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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