Coal Industry, Unions Criticize Federal Drug Test Plan

BEAVER, W.Va. (AP) - Labor unions and mine operators on Tuesday
criticized proposed federal rules to expand drug testing to include
more than 116,000 coal miners, asking for sweeping changes to the
proposal or for it to be dropped.

Mine operators praised the federal Mine Safety and Health
Administration for tackling what they consider a major safety
problem across the country. But they told agency representatives
during a hearing that the rules are less stringent than drug
testing already in place throughout much of the industry.

Labor representatives, on the other hand, blasted MSHA, saying
it failed to make the case that drugs are a problem in the industry
or that their use has contributed to deaths and injuries.

"MSHA has not shown that the proposed rule is necessary,"
United Steelworkers official Mike Wright said during public
testimony. "In this rule, MSHA is relying on limited anecdotal and
sometimes irrelevant information."

The proposed rules would prohibit the possession and use of
drugs and alcohol at coal, copper, gold or any other type of mine,
would test all job applicants and randomly test existing miners.

Coal companies that don't already have drug-testing programs
would have one year to comply with the regulation. MSHA estimates
the initiative would cost the mining industry about $16 million the
first year and $13 million a year thereafter.

Wright labeled the proposed rules unconstitutional. Federal
courts have held mandatory drug testing for workers is an illegal
search except to protect national security, Wright said. He added
that MSHA has not demonstrated a threat to the public or national

"This proposal is unconstitutional and unnecessary. It's a
distraction from real worker safety and it should be withdrawn,"
Wright said.

United Mine Workers officials likewise urged MSHA to drop the
proposal. So, too, did the National Mining Association, the
National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, the West Virginia Coal
Association and major coal producers Arch Coal and Consol Energy.

They urged MSHA to modify the rules to eliminate protections for
employees who fail drug tests and give mine operators more latitude
to examine hair, saliva and blood samples for drugs rather than
limiting testing to urine samples.

"Adoption of the proposed rule as published will actually
diminish the level of workplace safety," said Mining Association
lobbyist Bruce Watzman.

Mine operators said that provisions to protect jobs of workers
who fail drug and alcohol tests be stripped. Consol, Arch and other
large operators already have drug-testing programs, often
negotiated with labor unions, that allow them to immediately fire
anyone who tests positive.

A decision is not expected for awhile; MSHA typically takes
several months to publish a final rule following the close of a
public comment period.

Patricia Silvey, MSHA director of Standards, Regulations and
Variances, asked a few questions, but she and an agency review
panel listened to the complaints, and that they would be taken
under advisement.

MSHA held one hearing, taking testimony via teleconference from
Beaver, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Englewood, Colo., Birmingham,
Ala., Madisonville, Ky., and Price, Utah. The United Mine Workers
protested that procedure, saying holding hearings in big mining
states would have better included miners.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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