updated 11/27/2006 6:38:20 PM ET 2006-11-27T23:38:20

West Virginia’s new mine safety chief is preparing to test his agency’s staff for illegal drug use.

Ron Wooten doesn’t suspect a drug problem at the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. Rather, he considers testing a first step toward combating what he believes is a widespread drug problem in the coal fields of the nation’s second largest coal producer.

“Coal mining is tough enough and dangerous enough, even with all the safety innovations we have and all the modern equipment we have,” Wooten said. “When you start to mix controlled substances in there with it then we’ve got, we’ve got a major problem.”

Wooten’s concern comes from the agency’s inspectors, who are in state’s mines every day. Wooten says they routinely return to the office with complaints such as prescription bottles with more than one type of pill.

“Where there’s talk, there’s something going on,” he said, referring both to illicit drugs and misuse of prescription drugs.

But United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said there’s little evidence to support suspicions that drug use is more prevalent among miners than any other segment of society. Nor is he aware of evidence that drugs were involved in any of the nation’s 45 coal mine deaths this year. Twenty-two of the those deaths have occurred in West Virginia.

“No coal miner wants to work next to anybody who’s impaired,” Smith said. “But then to turn around and say, well, we’re going to test you based on nothing at all makes us wonder. What’s the reason?”

Privacy concerns
Wooten said he will have information on the involvement of drugs in serious accidents and some fatalities in West Virginia mines by the end of the year.

Just how to deal with the problem, if one is found, is another matter because state’s mining laws don’t mandate drug testing.

Passing legislation to test miners isn’t likely because Wooten doubts the state could get past legal concerns over privacy and unlawful searches.

Chris Hamilton with the West Virginia Coal Association said the industry supports drug testing. A number of coal companies have drug testing policies for their employees.

Hamilton differs with the UMW’s Smith over his assessment of drug use among miners.

“There is no reason to think that mining is any different or drug use is any less common than what’s found in society,” he said.

West Virginia lawmakers should pass legislation that requires the suspension of a miner’s mining certificate if fired for drug use, Hamilton said.

“It makes no sense to suspend a person, or terminate his employment because he’s a habitual user of drugs, then find the person has found work someplace else,” Hamilton said.

Kentucky makes it mandatory
Despite a raft of federal and state laws passed after 12 miners died at West Virginia’s Sago Mine in January, only Kentucky has added drug testing.

Since mid-July, Kentucky has required coal companies to report positive drug tests and miners who refuse to take tests. Thus far, 125 miners have been suspended, though 10 suspensions have been reversed, said Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

Sixty-six miners have appealed and 53 have been reinstated, Wolfe said.

The numbers suggest a tiny drug problem in Kentucky. The 115 suspensions account for just over one-half of 1 percent of Kentucky’s 19,269 mine workers. However, only about a quarter of the state’s coal companies test employees for drugs, Wolfe said.

Testing at Miners’ Health, Safety and Training would be confined to inspectors and other employees allowed to drive state vehicles, Wooten said. Everyone would be tested next month, followed by random tests determined by a lottery system.

“I can’t be out there talking about drugs and getting rid of them if I’m not sure that our house is clean,” Wooten said. “We’re going to make sure of it.”

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