Harold “Pete” Sigler
West Virginia Delegate
By Krista Rinehart, CSG National Leadership Center Coordinator
West Virginia Del. Harold “Pete” Sigler isn’t afraid to get a little dirty.
After spending more than 30 years working in the coal mines of West Virginia, Sigler decided to try his hand politics. But not so he could sling mud. The driving force for his entry into politics hits a little closer to home.
“I have four grandkids and I’d like for them to stay in West Virginia, so public office was a way I thought I could help keep jobs here to allow them to make a living here,” said Sigler. He and his wife, Jan, are the parents of two daughters.
“I entered politics hoping I could help make our state a better place for our children and grandchildren by creating jobs and improving our education system,” he said.
Sigler attended the West Virginia Institute of Technology and worked in the mines during college. He started his own business as a contract surface miner.
As a retired coal miner, Sigler believes his state needs to refocus and reinvest for future economic growth in the coal industry as a major power source for the country, even as alternative and cleaner fuel sources gain political cache across the country.
\“I believe that clean coal is a real possibility,” said Sigler. “I believe that if the coal companies and the government hadn’t been fighting for 30 years and had instead been investing money in technology, that we would be a lot better off. Carbon-neutral coal may not be possible, but we could be a whole lot better off.”
Sigler sees the possibility for cleaner coal not just as an environmental advancement, but as a huge economic opportunity for West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
“My dream would be that our states would have huge clean coal power plants,” said Sigler, “and that we would be selling power to other states instead of just shipping them coal.”
Coal is a business Sigler knows well.
When he ran for office in summer of 2010, the state was reeling from the Upper Big Branch mining accident that left 29 miners dead. The accident and its ramifications touched this former underground miner personally. His experiences as a miner make his views on mine safety and regulations somewhat different than his counterparts in the House.
“I have a good background as to what goes on (underground) and I’ve noticed that many things that needed taking care of were bypassed while stuff that didn’t really amount to a lot was written as violations,” Sigler said. “That’s what brought me around to needing better inspectors and better enforcement. “
The West Virginia House of Delegates continues to be impacted by this mining disaster. In the session that just adjourned, the House accepted a mine safety bill forwarded by the governor. While not necessarily opposed to the bill’s sentiment, Sigler found the recent debate about mine safety in the capitol as exemplary of a reactionary government that doesn’t always address what needs to be addressed.
“I’ve got a little bit different take on this than a lot of people in our House,” said Sigler. “To me, this is a great example of how government works. This has been more about making a knee jerk reaction to a disaster than pursuing safety and staying ahead of something in order to prevent it.
“I listened to the reports from the federal regulators and the (United Mine Workers) and then asked the question: ‘If the Upper Big Branch mine had obeyed the laws, what would have happened,’” said Sigler. “And without reservation, the regulators answered that if the laws had been followed we wouldn’t be here. To me, that says the laws that are there would have taken care of the safety issues if they had been obeyed.”
Sigler applauds the desire to ensure miner safety and empathizes with the emotions driving bids for new regulations and laws like those forwarded in the governor’s bill. At the same time, he’s not convinced new laws are the answer.
“I know it’s an emotional issue,” said Sigler. “Nobody in the business wants people to get hurt. But when an accident happens and the inspectors come in after the fact and write 200-300 violations, that tells me not that we need more laws, but that we need to better enforce the laws and regulations that we have. We need to pay inspectors better, train them better and if need be, to employ more of them to make sure laws are obeyed before another accident happens."
He’d like the state to learn from, and change, its reactionary stance on the issue. That, he said, would help position West Virginia—and the country—to become more energy independent. Sigler thinks that a coordinated, multi-branched energy policy is the key to this independence. He believes West Virginia is well positioned to be a major player in our domestic energy production if it can learn from past mistakes.
“We can’t cut out coal,” says Sigler. “We need to improve coal and then tap into our natural gas resources. I think ultimately nuclear will be an option as well. But in order to take advantage of these other markets, we have to look ahead.
“We can’t go in blind and just start digging like we did with coal. We need to be working now to learn how to responsibly collect natural gas, how to safely generate nuclear power and how to dispose of the waste properly and safely. We have to get ahead of these issues now and prepare and build a responsible energy economy. We can’t remain reactionary like we have been with coal or we will be asking for trouble.”