01 May 2010

Don Caruth, 1950 - 2010

Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, who quickly ascended to the ranks of leadership after entering the Legislature, has died, The Associated Press reports.

The 59-year-old lawyer "had been battling a recurrence of a form of brain cancer," the article said. "Last month, state lawmakers paid tribute to Caruth, who had been absent for much of the 2010 session. Gov. Joe Manchin honored him with the Distinguished West Virginian award, singling out Caruth's dedication and attention to detail during his legislative service."

28 April 2010

Mine Safety on Capitol Hill

A U.S. Senate committee fielded testimony about mine safety rules and industry compliance in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster, The Associated Press and others report.

The Obama administration's mine safety chief said his agency "will start going directly to federal court to shut down mines that make a habit of ignoring safety," the article said. Joe Main of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration "also called for a slew of other legal and regulatory reforms to beef up safety enforcement."

But a National Mining Association official said "there is no need for new regulations because MSHA already has the enforcement tools it needs," and instead "called for a new, cooperative emphasis on safety programs," AP reported.

And one day after a Massey Energy board member denounced such allegations as a "big lie," the article said that committee Chairman Tom Harkin described the April 5 disaster as a "tragic example" of what happens when companies "prioritize profits over safety and knowingly and repeatedly violate the law."

"The mine, owned by Massey Energy Co., was repeatedly cited for problems with its methane ventilation system and other issues in the months leading up to the accident," AP noted. "One category of serious violations was nearly 19 times higher than average."

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has posted video of the entire hearing, along with the prepared statements of 10 witnesses.

Update: Massey responded to some of MSHA's testimony and allegations.

27 April 2010

Massey Speaks

The Associated Press was among those covering the news conference held by Massey Energy to address several issues related to the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Chairman and Chief Executive Don Blankenship spoke to reporters and fielded questions along with three Massey board members. Among other topics, the officials detailed conditions at Upper Big Branch before the explosion, responded to regulatory actions that preceded the blast and criticisms leveled since, outlined compensation packages to the killed miners' families and continued to relay condolences to them.

More specifically:

  • Massey has yet to identify what caused the explosion, and its internal investigation continues.
  • Safety checks and gas readings taken "tens of minutes" before the blast offered no signs of the impending disaster, and instead indicated "everything was OK."
  • Massey disagreed with a push by federal regulators to change the mine's ventilation plan, and said it made that system more complicated and reduced air flow.
  • Regulators respond that "adverse mining conditions" preceded Massey's decision to adopt the changes, replacing a system that "could not be effectively maintained by the operator to ventilate the mine," one official told AP.
  • Director Bobby Inman labeled as a "big lie" the allegation that Massey put profits ahead of safety.
  • Union officials blamed by Inman for such allegations rejected his comments as spin. "The big truth is, 52 people have been killed on Massey property since 2000. No other coal company has had even half that," a union spokesman told AP.
  • The board repeated its support for Blankenship, and credit him for much of the company's success as well as safety innovations they believe make Massey a trend-setter within the industry. They attribute calls for his firing to a slight minority of company shareholders.
  • The compensation includes life insurance payouts, health coverage and four years' worth of in-state college or vocational schooling for dependent children.
  • A lawyer for the first family to sue Massey alleging wrongful death called the offer "grotesque," and said at least some of it is not generosity but rather proceeds from policies paid for by the killed miners. Other families told AP "they wanted more details or a chance to speak with attorneys" before commenting on that offer.
  • "I feel like they owe us more than that. I really do," the adult daughter of a killed miner told AP. "I hope Don Blankenship loses everything he has."
The company has also posted video from the news conference, the speakers' prepared remarks and a statement outlining the compensation packages and other topics from the hour-long session.

26 April 2010

Race to the Top and The Big Picture

The 28 proposed changes to West Virginia education policy sent to Gov. Joe Manchin should do more than improve the state's shot at federal Race to the Top funding, The Associated Press reports.

"State educators have also shaped their recommendations to reflect their belief that Race to the Top is setting the stage for major changes to key federal education policies," the article said.

State schools Superintendent Steve Paine told AP that ""we've been told clearly that the Race to the Top program is the forerunner to what will be contained in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act."

Election 2010: 1st U.S. House - Democrats

The Associated Press offers an overview of the primary battle between U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and challenger Mike Oliverio, a state senator from Monongalia County.

"Mollohan hopes voters in the May 11 primary will look at what he's done for them during his 28 years in Congress and ignore a 'smear campaign' he says began four years ago with Republicans," writes AP's Vicki Smith.

Oliverio wants them to "look at lingering questions about Mollohan's ethics and personal finances," the article said, adding that Oliverio also said he decided to oppose the incumbent "after seeing Mollohan support health care reform and take too long to publicly oppose proposed cap-and-trade legislation."

The New York Times, meanwhile, is the latest national media outlet to cast the race for Mollohan's seat as a toss-up. It included the district in a graphic of several seats deemed vulnerable, though slighting half the GOP field in the process.

Remembering the Miners of Upper Big Branch

President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy and Vice President Joe Biden spoke as well during Sunday afternoon's memorial for the 29 miners killed at Upper Big Branch, The Associated Press and others report.

C-SPAN offers video of the ceremony, while the White House has posted Obama's remarks and photos.

AP reported separately on remarks by Gov. Joe Manchin and others at the memorial, and also spoke to a miner's family member, a survivor, a rescue team member and others who attended.