Audits find issues with state mine safety agency, state parks

CHARLESTON — The state agency that performs mine inspections is unable to explain increases in mine injury rates, while another agency in charge of state parks doesn’t have the resources to keep up on maintenance.

Those were the determinations of two audits submitted to the Joint Committee on Government Organization Tuesday during legislative interim meetings at the State Capitol in Charleston.

The audits were completed by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Research Division. The division conducts performance evaluations, agency reviews, and regulatory reviews and conducts Legislature-mandated research.

According to the performance review of the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, the agency is unable to explain recent increases in the coal mine injury rate.

Auditors set out to answer two questions: Why has the injury rate increased since 2012 despite years of declines, and should MHST continue as an agency even though it duplicates many of the same responsibilities as the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

According to data compiled by the auditors, the state saw declines in mine injury rates through the first decade of the 2000s, but the number started going up again in 2013. MHST offered several reasons for the higher injury rates but couldn’t state specifically what the causes were.

A chart showing the coal mine injury rate between 2000 and 2017 showed a steady decline of 7.5 injuries per 200,000 work hours to a low of four injuries per 200,000 work hours in 2013. From there, it has steadily gone up, with six injuries per 200,000 work hours in 2017. Comparing data to other states, PERD found West Virginia’s underground and surface mine injury rates are close to the national average.

“West Virginia’s injury rates are near the center of all states for both surface and underground mines despite the recent up tick in the overall injury rate,” the report said. “While West Virginia is near the middle of all coal producing states, the state still has room for improvement.”

When compared to Kentucky and Pennsylvania, West Virginia’s injury rate for surface mining is better, averaging 1.8 injuries per 200,000 work hours since 2013. West Virginia’s underground mines don’t compare as favorably. While all three states saw increases in injury rates for underground mines, Kentucky and Pennsylvania averaged 5.5 and 5.0 respectively.

PERD met with officials from MHST to determine why the injury rate was increasing, but the agency was unable to explain the rise.

“The Legislative Auditor finds it concerning that the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of miners is unable to explain the recent increase in the injury rate,” the report said. “Through discussions with MHST leadership, PERD identified MHST’s lack of data analysis as one of the main reasons the agency is unable to explain the increasing injury rate.”

PERD recommends that MHST do a better job at reviewing the causes and circumstances behind mine injuries and develop new regulations and training programs to help mitigate these injuries. But the audit goes on to say that MHST is till important even though its responsibilities overlap with federal mine regulators.

“While there is significant duplication between MHST’s and MSHA’s enforcement programs, PERD recommends continuation of MHST,” the report said. “First, West Virginia’s regulations are specific to the state and implemented and enforced timelier than those at the federal level…Second, instances of MSHA failing to conduct required inspections could leave West Virginia’s mining industry with insufficient oversight if the state health and safety function is eliminated.”

In a separate performance review, PERD determined that the state’s park system lacks the resources to reduce the number of deferred maintenance and capital improvement projects.

PERD had previously reviewed the Parks and Recreation Section of the state Division of Natural Resources in 2009 and found many of the same issues nine years later.

According to the report, site visits to 15 state parks revealed maintenance issues similar to what auditors found in 2009. While some of the safety concerns raised in 2009 were addressed, many issues remained unaddressed. Many state parks have major infrastructure issues, including with waste treatment facilities.

Recently, the state issued excess lottery revenue bonds for $60 million to help make capital improvements to the state parks system, but auditors said this won’t be enough to fix all the necessary infrastructure and safety issues. The Parks Section estimates it would take between $76.5 million to $100.7 million to complete all deferred maintenance projects.

The report recommends that the Legislature find ways to look at ways to increase revenues at the state parks to meet their maintenance needs.