CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved the Coal Jobs Safety Act Friday after two hours of debate that focused on whether the bill would really help the coal industry.
“This is not the linchpin to improving the coal industry,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison) said who predicted the bill would eventually be declared unconstitutional. “We’ll be accused of being against coal miners and the coal industry generally but there’s nothing further from the truth.”
The bill passed 73-25 with several Democrats voting with the Republican majority.
Supporters of the bill (SB 357) said the measure will change coal mining operations making them more efficient and making West Virginia coal more competitive. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott (R-Mercer) said the bill will modernize mining while not jeopardizing safety.
“There are no changes in safety. There are improvements in safety,” Shott said.
He said the bill was also about getting West Virginia coal to a position where it can be more competitive with coal from other states.
“This bill will put us back in the ballgame,” Shott said.
Much of the long debate centered on safety with coal mining delegates Josh Nelson (R-Boone) and Randy Smith (R-Preston) speaking in favor of the bill.
“I would never, ever, ever vote on a piece of legislation that I thought would put myself, my brothers that I have sweated with, in harm’s way. I would never do that,” Nelson said.
“The laws stay in place,” he said holding bounded copies of federal and state mine safety regulations. “It’s not like we’re throwing the coal miners out in the trash.”
But Delegate Mike Caputo (D-Marion), who also has spent his career in mining, said the bill would do just the opposite.
“It’s the first time that we’ve ever voted to go backwards in coal mine health and safety,” Caputo said.
The bill deals with the environment, mining equipment, safety measures, drug testing and eliminates the state Diesel Commission.
Caputo said it’s the safety part of the bill that he has the most problems with.
“I truly believe that the passage of this bill is going to hurt people and I truly believe that it’s going to cost human life,” he said.
Several dozen coal miners, some of then out of work, attended the floor session to watch the debate and vote. Delegate Justin Marcum (D-Mingo) said his vote was for them and against President Barack Obama.
“I think we’ve got a challenge ahead of us to rollback what he (Obama) has done, but in the same token, we in this chamber have a chance to do something that can help,” Marcum said.
The Senate has already approved the bill but will be required to approve the changes the House made to it before sending it to the governor.