FRANKFORT — Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul is promising to do what's necessary to protect underground coal miners, following months of criticism from the largest miners' union and his opponent claiming Paul would try to strip federal enforcement of safety regulations.
Paul, an eye surgeon from Bowling Green, said in response to a questionnaire from The Associated Press that he would insist on enforcement of safety rules if he's elected to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, perhaps even pushing to add more mine inspectors.
Democratic candidate Jack Conway, responding to the same questionnaire, said he also favors stronger mine safety laws so that Kentuckians can work safely in coal mines.
"Too many lives have been lost for us to allow Rand Paul to erase safety rules," Conway wrote in his response. "We must continue to be vigilant by enforcing strong safety rules, implementing new technology and requiring safety training."
A series of mine tragedies in recent years had made underground safety a huge issue among voters in coalfield communities. Paul and Conway, aware of that fact, have been reaching out to the state's 18,000 miners and their families who make up a sizable voting bloc in Kentucky.
Conway repeatedly has criticized Paul's position on mine safety, following comments Paul made in May that many considered callous after a series of mine deaths in Kentucky and West Virginia.
"We had a mining accident that was very tragic," Paul said on Good Morning America in May. "Then we come in, and it's always someone's fault. Maybe sometimes accidents happen."
The UMWA stepped up its criticism after Details magazine published an article about Paul that suggested he thinks Washington shouldn't be involved in making rules to protect Kentucky coal miners. Fearing Paul would strip the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of its oversight, the union redoubled its efforts to elect Conway.
Paul clarified his position in August, saying he doesn't want to exclude the feds from mine safety enforcement, though he does favor more state and local involvement.
In his response to the AP questionnaire, Paul said "I will make sure mine accidents are thoroughly investigated and the right lessons are learned from what went wrong. I will focus mine safety efforts on correcting problems, and that starts with enforcing existing rules, which may require putting more inspectors on the job first."
However, when a Herald-Leader reporter asked Paul during a campaign stop in Manchester on Monday whether he had said more mine inspectors might be needed, Paul said that decision should be left to others.
"The specific number of mining inspectors is a pretty specific thing that would probably have to be determined by the head of the department of mining safety," he said.
In his response to the Associated Press, Paul also said he still thinks miners, mine operators and mine regulators in Kentucky know what works best to keep Kentucky miners safe.
"Because the land in our state varies from one region to the next, the ways to mine coal must vary as well, and mine operators, miners, and safety officials in Kentucky should be in the best position to know what safety measures will work best in Kentucky's mines," he said. "I support enabling safety officials in Kentucky to set standards that work for Kentucky."
In Kentucky, state and federal inspectors routinely monitor coal mines for hazardous conditions. When they find hazards, they write citations to the mine operators that can result in fines.
"Preventing accidents is the best way to keep our miners safe," Conway said. "That's why Congress must continue to strongly enforce safety and protection measures in our mines to help reduce the number of collapses."
Herald-Leader Reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story.