By John Raby
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey told mining industry officials Thursday he will carefully monitor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reach into West Virginia and protect the state’s interests.
The EPA has repeatedly sparred with the mining industry over permits and their effect on clean water, particularly for mountaintop removal mining operations. Earlier this month, Gina McCarthy was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the EPA.
Morrisey, who took office in January, said his staff will ensure that West Virginia’s interests are protected when the EPA proposes rules concerning air quality standards and when Obama takes administrative actions.
“This is where we begin to develop the legal theories to make sure that the EPA is going to be adhering to the rule of law much more carefully,” Morrisey said at the 40th annual West Virginia Mining Symposium conducted by the West Virginia Coal Association.
“We’ve had a lot of success in past lives where we’re able to get involved early in the process and send a message to these federal regulatory bodies that they can’t act in an arbitrary and capricious manner,” said Morrisey, who previously worked as a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm. “And I think that people realize that the West Virginia attorney general’s office is going to be far more aggressive than you’ve ever seen previously.”
Other speakers included CONSOL Energy President Nicholas Deluliis, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation.
Deluliis said West Virginia must improve its safety culture and close what he called the “reputation-reality gap” if it’s to participate fully in the nation’s energy future.
His company was coming off its safest year on record when it suffered recent fatalities at its Robinson Run and Loveridge mines in northern West Virginia. Deluliis said the tragedies “have tested our spirit and forced us all to look inward for answers.”
“We suffer from what some experts call a ‘reputation-reality gap,”’ he said, describing how the reality of the industry’s overall safety record compares with the public’s perception.
“The reality is that safety is rapidly improving every year,” he said.
But DeIuliis said incremental improvements aren’t good enough.
“The only acceptable result for everyone in this room should be zero accidents across all of our operations,” he said.
Operators are embracing new technology, new communications and employee awareness programs, he said. But the biggest challenge — the mindset of miners themselves — has no technological or engineering fix.
“Getting to zero accidents is 20 percent process safety and 80 percent decision-making and personal choice,” he said, “and therein lies our greatest challenge.
Safety is not just the responsibility of the company or the employee, DeIuliis said.
“They are our collective responsibility — from the guy mining coal at the face to the accountant at headquarters to the senior management team,” he said. “CONSOL Energy will lead. We will collaborate. We will listen. We will follow. We will do whatever it takes to get at the heart of this issue.”
Tomblin, who ordered safety talks for more than 500 West Virginia coal operations after a string of deaths, said those talks are complete. Tomblin ordered the one-hour talks with employees last month after four mining deaths in a period of two weeks.
Tomblin didn’t provide details Thursday and state mine safety director Eugene White was unavailable to answer questions. Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater said figures are still being compiled on the number of workers involved in the talks.