Restructuring cuts state's mine safety staff

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 30, 2014 

Staffing in the state's mine-safety office will be slashed 37 percent to deal with a steep budget cut approved by the legislature this year, according to an order Gov. Steve Beshear filed Friday to restructure the agency.

The reorganization will leave the division with 88 full-time positions, down from the current level of 141, according to information provided with Beshear's executive order.

The cut raises concerns that the state will not be able to complete all required safety inspections at coal mines, meaning more potential danger for miners, said Butch Oldham, a health and safety representative with the United Mine Workers of America.

"We have a lot of concern," Oldham said Friday. "We don't see how they're going to be able to continue and keep up the inspections."

There also are questions about whether the state will reduce other services, such as training and mine-rescue teams, said Oldham, who is on the state board that certifies miners.

Beshear's office and the Energy and Environment Cabinet, which includes the mine safety office, declined to provide additional details about the effect of restructuring what is now called the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

However, Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters said in a news release that the state "will be challenged to make the inspections necessary to keep our miners safe."

Beshear said in the release the state will work to "assure the highest level of safety possible with the funding available."

Under the reorganization, OMSL and its two divisions will be abolished and replaced by an agency called the Division of Mine Safety within the cabinet's Department for Natural Resources.

The reorganization will not reduce the seven slots on the state mining board, so the reorganization will move a total of 148 positions and cut the number to 95.

The order is effective Sunday.

Beshear ordered the changes in response to a 30 percent cut the legislature made to the budget of the mine office for the two-year fiscal period that begins July 1.

Beshear had proposed a 5 percent reduction for the agency, similar to that of many other state offices. Senate Republicans pushed through a plan for the deeper cut, and the House went along.

Lawmakers who backed the cut, as well as the coal industry, said the agency didn't need as much money because of a steep decline in coal production in Eastern Kentucky, which has left fewer mines to inspect.

Production in the region has dropped by more than a third over the last five years because of a combination of factors, including competition from relatively cheaper natural gas and coal from other areas, and tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality.

Federal analysts do not project a turnaround anytime within the next 25 years.

Lawmakers also cut the number of state safety inspections required annually at each mine, from six to four.

The federal government also conducts health and safety inspections at mines. Some in the coal industry contend state enforcement duplicates that effort.

However, people who opposed the cuts to the state program argued that the reduction in mines and production does not lessen the need for safety oversight at mines still operating.

There was no justification for cutting the number of inspections, said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who formerly worked for the state and federal mine-safety agencies and represents miners.

"For the guys who are still working, why should they get fewer inspections than before?" he said.

And Oppegard pointed out that coal production has held steady in Western Kentucky.

Beshear said Friday that the budget cut approved by legislators left no choice but to make major changes at the mine safety office.

"For years Kentucky made mine safety a high priority and dedicated resources to assure a higher safety standard than the federal government requires," Beshear said in a release. "I am disappointed that the General Assembly decided to retreat from that standard and only meet the minimum requirements."

State lawmakers had raised the number of required state inspections to six annually following the deaths of five workers at an underground coal mine in Harlan County in 2006.

One of those miners was Roy Middleton.

His widow, Mary Middleton, said lawmakers who voted to cut state inspections and funding for the safety agency had favored corporate interests over miners.

"They're looking out for coal operators, same as always. It's the men who go underground and do the work and risk their lives, but the politicians will always cut corners for the coal operators," Middleton told the Herald-Leader in March.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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