DEBORD — The state will hire 15 mine-safety inspectors and 19 mine permit application reviewers to clear backlogs in those offices, Gov. Steve Beshear announced Tuesday.
To pay for the permit reviewers, Beshear signed an emergency regulation allowing the state to assess a permit application fee to raise $800,000 that will be matched with federal funds.
Safety inspectors, who double as rescue teams for small mine companies, will be hired with $1.4 million from multicounty coal severance tax money that was made available by a memorandum of understanding among the state and Floyd and Martin counties, Beshear said in one of three news conferences held in Eastern Kentucky to announce the move.
Len Peters, secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the state's backlog of permit applications was the largest it had ever been six months ago.
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More state reviewers will speed the permitting process, he said. But federal holds on dozens of permit applications remain as the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers review environmental regulations in an effort to restrict mountaintop-removal mining.
Beshear said he has sent a letter asking that federal agencies "move in a reasonable manner" to quickly approve pending permits.
"There is one good way to handle this, and that is get on with business," Beshear said at a news conference Tuesday.
The industry advocacy group FACES of Coal sent an open letter last month urging elected officials to tell federal agencies that "we can no longer afford to give the EPA the benefit of the doubt. Its motive is clear: to destroy coal mining in Kentucky as we know it." Phil Osborne, director of FACES of Coal-Kentucky, was named to be Beshear's communications director as the new governor took office in 2007, but Osborne later declined because of potential conflicts of interest with his marketing company's clients.
The Mine Permit Office now has 90 employees. The new hires include 16 full-time and three interim positions, also to be paid half with state money and half with a federal match, said Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman in the governor's office. The new fee of $2,125 on each new mine permit application is a significant increase. Federal matching funds will bring the total for the 19 positions to $1.6 million.
State budget cuts and retirements last year meant the mine safety office could not double the number of inspections as required by the General Assembly in 2007 after a series of fatal accidents, Peters said. He said the money from the coal severance tax fund will help meet that goal. The office had 45 employees before and will now have 60, said Johnny Greene, director of the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.
Jeff Speaks, a lobbyist for Coal Operators & Associates, said the additional money for mine-safety analysts will help meet a federal mandate that would be difficult for many small and medium-size coal operators to meet. The issue concerns mine-rescue teams.
The 2006 MINER Act changed training requirements for rescue teams and also required that each mine have access to two teams instead of one, Speaks said.
Many smaller coal companies in Kentucky traditionally have relied on state-funded teams to help satisfy their requirements for access to rescuers.
"That's an incredibly important thing the state of Kentucky has provided," Speaks said.
The state employees on the teams have other job duties, however. The state didn't have enough employees to free up people to meet the training requirements of the federal law, but it will with the additional analysts and inspectors, Speaks said.
Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said using state money to provide mine-rescue teams amounts to a subsidy for coal companies that would have to provide their own teams if the state didn't.
But Speaks said hiring more people to serve on rescue teams is an investment for the state, helping protect miners and keeping coal operators in production.