2009 General Assembly

Closing of mine led to measure

Safety lapse shut down legislator's operation

jcheves@herald-leader.comMarch 3, 2009 

State inspectors last year cited and shut down a small coal mine near Pikeville for not having a mine emergency technician on duty, in violation of a mine-safety law requiring at least two METs whenever coal is being produced.

That mine was owned by state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, who is now using his political clout to attack the law, calling it unreasonably tough.

Hall's House Bill 119, awaiting a House floor vote, would cut from two to one the number of METs required at coal mines that employ fewer than 18 people, as his does. METs are miners trained for free by the state to provide on-site medical care to their colleagues in case of an accident. The legislature added the two-MET minimum in 2007 after a series of miner deaths.

Hall is president and owner of Beech Creek Coal Co., which owns the underground coal reserves at Mine #1 in Phelps currently being mined on contract by Kimara Coal Co. (Another lawmaker, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, is a paid consultant to Beech Creek Coal, giving Hall advice about coal markets.)

It was Kimara that the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing cited and shut down at 9:50 a.m. last Aug. 19 for not having an MET or a foreman on the property while coal was produced inside the mine, according to state records.

About two hours later, a foreman and two METs arrived at the mine, so the problem was considered resolved, according to state records. There is no reference in those records to any penalties being issued. The Office of Mine Safety and Licensing on Monday declined to provide more information.

In an interview Monday, Hall confirmed that Kimara was mining his coal when it was cited, but said that it would be unfair to blame him for the actions of his contractor. However, the incident does prove how hard it is for small mines to reliably find two of the state's 4,565 certified METs to work on a crew at any given time, Hall said.

"This has been a real hardship for my constituents in Pike County, the several, several coal operators who have talked to me about this," Hall said. "What I hope to achieve is not to diminish safety but to make room in our legislation for the small mine operators that don't have 50, 100, 250 or 300 miners."

Kimara co-owner John Biliter said Mine #1 employs seven or eight miners per shift. Kimara was at a disadvantage the morning inspectors arrived because one MET didn't come to work and the other — who was also the foreman — abruptly quit and left, Biliter said. Usually, Kimara respects the law and stops mining when it can't find two METs, which is an all too common obstacle, he said.

"At Phelps, we probably miss about four or five days a month because we don't have METs," Biliter said. "It makes it real difficult."

Mine-safety advocates, who are fighting coal-industry efforts to weaken the two-MET rule, said it's disgraceful that Hall has associated himself with scofflaw mining.

"I think Mr. Hall clearly has a conflict of interest here. He needs to drop this nonsense and pull this bill," said Steve Earle, a United Mine Workers of America representative in Kentucky.

"Obviously this is a coal company that puts production ahead of miners' safety," Earle said. "Those sorts of companies should not be in business. This is exactly why we need strong safety laws."

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