Environment

A bill under consideration in Kentucky’s General Assembly would eliminate state mine inspections, a move that a safety advocate said would have adverse effects on mine safety in Kentucky.

Senate Bill 297 was introduced last week by Sen. Chris Girdler, a Republican from Somerset. It would repeal parts of Kentucky law that require state mine inspectors to examine underground coal mines at least six times a year, and other coal mines at least every six months.

The bill’s text reads:

“Whereas the coal industry has been regulated by both the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Division of Mine Safety during a time of economic downturn in the coal industry, which places an undue burden on the regulated community, an emergency is declared to exist, and this Act takes effect upon its passage and approval by the Governor or upon its otherwise becoming law.”

Both state and federal regulatory agencies inspect Kentucky coal mines, but mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard said the inspections complement, rather than duplicate, each other. And he added that while the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration attaches a monetary penalty for every citation it issues, it’s rare for state inspectors to levy civil fines.

“So basically, if the state enforcement agency is eliminated, or if the inspectors are eliminated, it’s really not going to save coal companies any money,” Oppegard said. “So if the argument’s being made that it’s a cost-saving measure for a beleaguered industry, that’s really a red herring.”

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the bill would help conserve state funding for the Energy and Environment Cabinet in the face of budget cuts.

“With limited funds, hard decisions have to be made, and with the mine safety experts we’ve talked to, [this bill is] the right direction,” he said.

Girdler’s bill isn’t the only mine safety legislation before lawmakers this session. Another measure sponsored by Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican from Hazard, would eliminate mandatory state safety training for mine foremen. The bill would allow companies to provide their own training.

Oppegard said both bills would walk back key mine safety protections that were put in place in 2007, after the 2006 Kentucky Darby disaster killed five people in a Harlan County mine.

“A miner under the best working conditions is always working in a life-threatening job,” he said. “And then, when corners are cut on safety, it makes it even more dangerous. And that’s why we have inspectors, that’s why we need inspectors.”

Two Kentucky coal miners were killed on the job last year; in the first three months of 2016, one miner was killed. In Kentucky, state mine inspectors also do double duty as mine rescue personnel.

Girdler didn’t return multiple calls for comment on his bill, but Bissett said it would retain the mine rescue functions of the position. Basically, it would change inspectors’ roles from regular mine inspections to what Bissett called a “safety analyst program.”

“This is behavior modification, and it’s more than just enforcement; it’s trying to help miners work more safely, identify any kind of risk situation and act to it accordingly,” he said. “But the mine rescue teams would definitely still be in place, because that’s a very positive thing that we all believe in.”

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura didn’t return multiple calls for comment, but he told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the Bevin administration “generally supports” the bill.