West Virginia Lawsuit Seeks Mandating Mine-Safety Device

December 23, 2013

Two West Virginia agencies should force coal operators to install detectors that automatically shut down mobile machinery in mines when people get too close, according to a lawsuit.

Mountain State Justice lawyers filed an emergency petition Friday with the state Supreme Court. It said the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety failed to require operators to install proximity detection systems to protect workers.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of mine-safety advocate Marshall Justice of United Mine Workers Local 1503 in Boone County and Caitlin O’Dell, whose husband, Steven O’Dell, was killed in November 2012 when he was caught between a scoop and a continuous mining machine at an Alpha Natural Resources mine in Greenbrier County.

Board administrator Joel Watts told The Charleston Gazette he won’t comment on pending litigation. A mine office spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

According to the petition, state law mandates that the mine safety office and the board require the use of the best available safety systems to protect miners. It said the agencies could have prevented deaths and injuries by compelling mine operators to buy and install proximity detection systems. It said the current makeup of the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety has led to a logjam.

Earlier this month the board voted to gather more industry and labor proposals on proximity detectors before they require mine operators to install the equipment. It marked the fourth straight meeting that members could not agree on whether to mandate the devices. Instead, the board voted to send the matter to a subcommittee to sort out industry and labor proposals. The subcommittee will meet Jan. 9.

“West Virginia’s coal miners have a right to go to work each day with the benefit of the strong health and safety protections they have been promised by the state of West Virginia for decades,” said Jennifer Wagner, a lawyer with Mountain State Justice. “The current structure of the board, which leads to total gridlock, eviscerates that right.”

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