The wild and not-so-wonderful drug problem plaguing West Virginia's coal mining sector is getting a lot of attention this week. Lawmakers call for mandatory drug testing in light of casualties caused by impaired workers, the House and Senate Judiciary committees heard Monday.
In a two-day series of hearings, industry leaders focused on proposals calling for increased mining safety regulations in reaction to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion and the underground Raleigh County blast that killed 29 workers, the worst US coal mining disaster in four decades.
Chris Hamilton, a senior vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, described a few recent events at the meeting, in which a miner high on prescription drugs recently crashed a locomotive into a mine car, killing a co-worker. In another incident, a man operating a 50-ton surface truck destroyed a vehicle with two engineers inside while high on cocaine.
“We have our share of drug use in coal and we ask your support to help us as we move toward a drug-free work place,” Hamilton said.
Drugs played a role in about 200 of the 5,413 complaints and incidents investigated last year, according to Eugene White, deputy director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
"Most of the complaints we get, believe it or not, a lot of them are from the wives of the miner," White told the committees. "He's home for the evening, and he'll tell his wife that 'They're taking drugs or using drugs on the work area where I'm working.'"
Earlier this year, Gov. Eary Ray Tomblin said that coal companies in the state are unable to find new miners able to pass drug test to fill over 1,000 vacancies. But overseeing a new drug testing program in the state would require staffing, resources and training. Turnover is also a concern as the UMWA is already short inspectors and employees.
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In neighboring Kentucky and Virginia, state-run drug testing programs have resulted in the suspension of nearly 2,000 miners for drug use, according to Hamilton. "We fear a number of those individuals are working here in the state of West Virginia," he said.
Beyond the mines, Hamilton explained that "druggies" weren't the only victims of the situation—businesses and schools feel it too. Operators lose thousands of dollars after investing in an employee, only to lose the miner to drug or alcohol abuse.
“It’s rampant through society. It’s in our schools. It’s in our industrialized world,” he says. “It’s no more, no less, prominent in coal mining than anywhere else.”